2011 AGRICULTURE STORY OF THE YEAR

 

"XU graduate practices Urban Farming to answer issues on food security, sanitation, environmental protection"
By: Mach Alberto Fabe
Business Mirror

 

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY “If Nebuchadnezzar had his Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I also have my “Hanging Gardens of Rom.”

With this opening sentence coupled with several pictures of Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon flashed on the screen with pictures of ampalaya (bitter melon or charantia) vines hanging from the roof to the second floor balcony on one side of his rented 2-storey house in Davao City, Perfecto “Jojo” Rom effectively drew the attention of the crowd to his lecture on Urban Agriculture, specifically on “Urban Container Gardening” or UCG.

Rom, who graduated from Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan in 2001 with a degree of Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Major in Crop Science through a full scholarship provided by the Xavier Science Foundation from 1997 to 2001, has visited other countries teaching those willing to listen the concept of UCG. Using discarded, broken plastic containers and even used tires, 35-year-old Rom has embarked on a one-man crusade teaching households and individuals to contribute to the Philippines’ food security program as well as ecological sanitation and environmental protection through Urban Farming.

“R.A. 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 is most effectively implemented at the household level. And growing one’s own food, nutritious organic food, using the household’s own bio-waste as fertilizers and as planting materials effectively helps the environment and reduce the government’s waste disposal expenses,” he explained. “Urban Container Gardening is an inexpensive way of growing one’s own food anywhere in the house using recyclable containers and soil mixed with compost made from the household waste as fertilizers,” he added. UCG can be done even if someone has no space in his/her house for a garden. “Instead of planting flowers and putting them on your window sills, or on the side of walkways and hallways, you can plant vegetables and spices. And every morning, you’ll just have to get some fresh leaves from your ‘garden’ and have a nutritious salad,” he said.

Rom said he began developing the concept for UCG in 2002 when he was assigned as the agronomist-cum-community organizer of the Peri-urban Vegetable Project of Xavier University under the European Union- and German-funded Asia-Urbs Integrated Solid Waste Management and Food Security Project once directed by Dr. Robert Holmer, the German agriculturist who is now the director of the East and Southeast Asia Regional Office of AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center, based in Bangkok.

“Since veggies should be fresh when consumed and often refrigeration is a (cost) limitation, production of veggies near the places they are consumed is of advantage. This doesn’t mean, production of veggies is rural areas must not be done, but urban gardening is a very promising way of supplying city dwellers with affordable and nutritious food. Some of the advantages are that biodegradable wastes can be reused as fertilizer and contribute to overall urban environmental management,” Holmer said through electronic mail.
 
Fruits and vegetable grown through UCG are also 100 percent free from harmful chemicals because they are grown organically, using the household’s own bio-wastes as fertilizers through composting. “Even one’s own urine can be used as organic liquid fertilizer. But this should be mixed with other bio-waste like rice wash in a strict proportion,” Rom said.

 

Addresses food security:

Holmer said that Rom’s crusade for Urban Farming, through UCG, to teach households grow their own nutritious, organic food while at the same time contribute to the protection of the environment through proper solid waste management through the principles of reduce, recycle and reuse is very important to city dwellers especially since nutritious food prices are way above the average working man’s salary. He also said that city dwellers have a need for nutritious organic food which is not readily available. 

“There is a need for fresh food and urban agriculture, through Urban Container Gardening, gives us the opportunity to provide fresh, organic, nutritious food to the market/customers. And veggies are particularly suited to be grown in urban areas since they grow fast, can readily be sold and consumed and they only need little space (such as containers),” Holmer explained.

If several households each practice UCG, they can mass produce fresh, organic vegetables on a daily basis for a market thus, create a micro-enterprise without putting in too much capital, Rom said.

Studies showed that by 2030, nearly 50 percent of the world’s population will be congesting in urban areas, resulting to massive conversion of farmlands into subdivisions for housing and other usage. “Any further encroachment of natural habitat for other creatures may result in serious degradation of the eco-system. In addition to the loss of farmland, the new urban sprawl also creates urban wastelands like roof tops, brown fields and unused paved spaces,” said Dr. Job S. Ebenezer, president of Technology for the Poor, a US-based non-profit organization whose mission is to develop, innovate and disseminate sustainable technologies to the poor all over the world.

The United Nations had projected that by 2030 at least two-thirds of the world’s people will be living in cities. The same UN projections also predict that that world’s population will rise to nine billion by 2050. “There will be a huge increase in urban populations. Making sure they have the food they need will pose an unprecedented challenge,” said Alexander Muller, assistant director-general of the Natural Resources Management and Environment Department of the FAO.

Rapid migration to urban areas will further compromised food security and safety because most of the fruits and vegetables are imported and “there is no widespread testing of these imported produce for harmful chemicals and biological agents” and most of the farmlands are fast losing to the encroachment of development, Ebenezer said.

In 2007, the FAO opened a new front in its battle against hunger and malnutrition in the world’s cities. The “Food for the Cities” programme is an interdisciplinary initiative of FAO to help a number of cities to support urban and peri-urban agriculture so that they can increasingly contribute to the job of feeding themselves. Alison Hodder, senior horticulturist with the FAO’s Crop and Grassland Service, said that the FAO is supporting urban agriculture because it is an effective response to the surging food security problem in the cities of the developing world. And for Rom, UCG is an effective way of answering the challenges posted by FAO-creating household jobs that will provide nutritious food to city dwellers.

In the city context, UCG becomes imperative because it “address[es] food security, health and nutrition issue through democratization of food production; reduce dependency on agro-chemicals and other gardening inputs by converting household solid/liquid bio-wastes as fertilizers and pesticides and other local and available resources and integrate them in the garden; and make gardening accessible and practical to any interested individual, family and community,” he said.

 

Socio-economic, environmental impact:

With UCG, city dwellers no longer have to rely on fast-food, chemically-processed “instant food” whose production and by-products helped induce natural and man-made calamities that threaten the livelihood, health and lives of the people. “If necessity is the mother of innovation, then crisis should be the father,” Rom stressed, narrating that when he started UCG due to the prodding of his mother, Lilia Bacal-Rom (deceased) who grew alugbati (Malabar spinach) in sacks to protect it from their neighbors’ pigs, he had no inkling that it answers a lot of issues on food security, environmental protection and sanitation, and nutrition.

“If I were to assume each household would follow the same system and implement it religiously in just one day, I can say that total waste volume coming from the households will be reduced by up to 80 percent on the average. Various studies show that each person on earth produce 4.4 pounds (1.995 kilos) of waste a day or 29 pounds (13.154 kilos) a week for a total of 1,600 pounds (725.748 kilos) a year,” he explained.

In his 1999 study on the solid waste management in Cagayan de Oro, Holmer found out that most of the garbage thrown into the city’s landfill come from the households (54 percent); while commerce and institutions only contributed 28 percent, and the last 18 percent came from other sources. He also found out that the city’s garbage was composed of 50 percent biodegradables, 30 percent recyclable and the rest or 20 percent as residual waste. Holmer also found out that 50 percent of the household waste are hauled by garbage collectors, 38 percent were burned by households while 12 percent were dumped in vacant lots contributing a lot to city pollution and sanitation problems.

“With the high volume of garbage disposed by households improperly, we have problems like floods (due to drainage system clogged by plastics and cellophanes), health problems due to pollution, and air and ground water contamination,” Rom said, adding: “The households are the culprit and also the victim because the adage that says ‘garbage disposed improperly always comes back’ is true.”

Rom said that instead of blaming other countries, modern technology, transportation and factories as the culprits for greenhouse gas emissions that result to global warming and climate change, Filipinos should blame at the man in the mirror. “And to avoid being victimized by one’s disregard for the environment and sanitation, Filipinos should start practicing Urban Farming through UCG,” he said.

With a significant reduction on the average waste thrown into landfill, “we can now predict the budget reduction of the government for solid waste disposal. For example, on the average, an urban barangay spends P1 million a year to dispose garbage, it means they will save P800 thousand if the waste volume is reduced to 20 percent. With good political will, local government units can spend that savings to support projects like gardening and related social enterprise that clearly addresses the issue of food security and improve the local economy and the well-being of the poor,” he said.
 
Rom also said every household can earn from the sale of recyclables. Based on Holmer’s studies, the average recyclable thrown by a Cagayan de Oro City resident daily comprised 30 percent or 14 million kilos of the total daily waste thrown into the landfill. “If we sell this fraction at an average price of P10/kilo, the daily gross sales would be P140 million a day,” he said.

“In the above context, we can develop from our waste,” he stressed.

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY Rapid urbanization and population growth in the Philippines, where an estimated 30 percent of the population is living below the national poverty line without access to basic necessities such as adequate sanitation and potable water, has led to serious negative consequences on both human and environmental health.

But community-based solutions are fast emerging that tackles these problems head-on. One such solution is the Urban Container Gardening (UCG), perfected by Perfecto “Jojo” Rom, 35, as a strategy to “democratize agriculture and empower households to participate in food production and ecological sanitation (ECOSAN).” However, when Rom started UCG in 2002, he had no inkling that he had developed a program that answers a lot of questions that the government and private sectors have been trying to answer for a very long time; issues such as environmental protection, sanitation, food security and nutrition. But as he pursued the development of UCG, he had slowly realized that growing food, especially highly nutritious organic vegetables in the household is now a possibility in urban areas.

 

Addresses Nutrition issues:

Aside from positively impacting food security, environmental protection, sanitation and economic problems of urban poor (as tackled in the first part), UCG also positively impacts nutrition problems in the city. Because most city dwellers rely so much on processed “instant food”, most residents now lack the proper nutrients needed for the body’s optimal function.

“Malnutrition in the Philippines is caused by a host of interrelated factors-health, physical, social, economic and others. Food supply and how it is distributed and consumed by the populace have consequent impact on nutritional status. While reports indicate that there are enough food to feed the country, many Filipinos continue to go hungry and become malnourished due to inadequate intake of food and nutrients. In fact, except for protein, the typical Filipino diet was found to be grossly inadequate for energy and other nutrients. In order to compensate for the inadequate energy intake, the body utilizes protein as energy source. Thus, the continuing PEM [protein-energy malnutrition] problem in the country,” the UN’s FAO said.

This is the reason why Sen. Edgardo Angara launched last year the Oh My Gulay! (OMG!) campaign to create awareness among children about the nutritional value of vegetables and encourage Filipino households to help fight malnutrition by growing and eating vegetables. This becomes a must since high production inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other agro-chemicals, labor and transportation contribute to make the price of an ordinary vegetable so high beyond the reach of the average Pinoy daily wage-earner.
 
The World Bank has classified the Philippines as one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in the world with more than 58 percent of the population living in urban areas, while the National Statistics Coordination Board (NSCB) estimated that at least 30 percent of the population is living below the national poverty line. In its survey result for the second quarter of 2011, the Social Weather Station (SWS) reported that 15.1 percent or about 3 million families are regularly suffering from hunger. All these contribute to widespread malnutrition and chronic hunger resulting to serious public health problems. The Health and Nutrition Center (HNC) of the Department of Education (DepEd) shows that 17 percent of school children all over the Philippines in 2009 are undernourished while the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) reported that 26 out of every 200 school-age children in the country are malnourished. Most of the children are malnourished because of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, the FNRI added. The FNRI also said that the average per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables of Filipinos is 54 g/day and 111 g/day, respectively, which is way below the minimum required intake of 400 g/day as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for a healthy diet.

“Today, whether we admit it or not, we are confronted with exorbitant costs of food, especially for vegetables. Studies say that the average Filipino household spends more than 40 percent of its income for food also, while the poorest Filipinos allocate almost 60 percent of their available household budget to feed their families,” the FNRI and Philippine Association of Nutrition (PAN) said.

But with UCG, Rom has given each household the solution to the problems of nutrition. 

 

What is Urban Container Gardening:

But what really is Urban Container Gardening? Rom said, it is simply a food production system established in a limited space to serve as nutrition garden of the household; a household activity that utilizes containers in growing fruits, vegetables and herbs for family consumption; it is the cheapest and healthiest way of food production as it utilizes household bio-wastes as sources of fertilizers in growing crops; and a system that facilitates the utilization of household wastes (including idle time) for productive activity. “In short, it is an advocacy to democratize agriculture and empower households to participate in food production and ecological sanitation (ECOSAN),” he said. 

UCG is also effective since it (1) enables households to practice intensive gardening method through maximum utilization of limited space; (2) allows for intercropping (planting a variety of plants in one container) which ensures the health of plants due to diversity; (3) conserve both soil and water since containers prevent run offs of soil and excessive watering; (4) make use of urban wasteland (vacant lots, brown fields, unused parking lots, and roof tops); (5) provides meaningful employment for persons with limited skills and formal education; (6) it is a very inexpensive way of growing food; and (7) gives household opportunities to embark on creative ways to recycle containers that otherwise would be thrown into landfills while re-using bio-waste materials as fertilizers thus reducing material wastes thrown into the garbage dump.

“Container gardening, as I see it, is the only doable strategy of democratizing agriculture-where people will now have a form of control in the area of food security. Through container gardening, social enterprises flourish and more jobs are generated, and lessen migration to other countries. This will also result in lower incidences of food-borne diseases or illnesses,” Rom said.

In the pursuit of UCG, Rom had developed what he called the Household Resource Dynamic Flow (See attached chart), which is “a system I developed from my own interpretation and understanding of the Ecological Sanitation Philosophy that guided me in realizing some practical principles in Agro-ecology I learned in school. When we combine Inspiration, System, Innovation, Philosophy, Ingenuity for Nature’s integrity (ISIPIN-“to think”) plus Go And Work Including Neighbours (GAWIN-“to do”) it gives us some suggestion that everyone may follow and do as a mission.” He explained that the Household Resource Dynamic Flow is a system that serves as a guide in resource mobilization in the household level. “By following it, we will reduce our garbage disposal up to 80 percent. It suggests clear direction on how waste can be turned into a resource. For example, on a monthly basis, 20 kilos of my household waste volume, when segregated comprise 60 percent biodegradable, which I re-use for my compost to make organic fertilizer.”

Rom is currently tending a 30-square-meter container garden in his rented home in Davao. “Based on recording, my garden’s average production capacity is 60 kilograms of vegetables a month. I sell some to my neighbors. Now, I deliver my lettuce to PLDT canteen in Davao. At full production, I can earn a net income of P5,000. Since we started container gardening in 2007 our dietary appetite and the way we eat have improved. Our highest monthly saving on food was P2,000. This is because we only buy spices and few veggies that we do not have at home. We just started selling our extra harvest this year,” he added.

Like the average wage-earner, Rom works from 6 am to 8 pm daily. But unlike the average working man, he spends 2 hours daily (before leaving for work, waking up at dawn) to tend to his container garden for a total of 10 hours a week. But on Saturday, he spends 4 hours on his garden for a total of 14 hours a week or 56 hours a month. “If I would put financial value to my time on a per hour basis, say P596.67 (which is my March 2011 savings) and divide it by 56 hours, it results to 10.65/hour,” he said, adding: “The Land Equivalent Ratio on productivity would be P596.67 (which is my March 2011 savings) divided by 30 sq.m. (garden size), the result is P19.89/sq.m. Thus, with container gardening, my 30 sq.m. idle lot has increased its asset value to P596.67/month and made my idle time worth P10.65/hour.”

 

Challenges:

Despite the promise of UCG, many Filipinos have not practice it at home. But Rom, always the positive-thinker that he is, believes that many will eventually turn around and implement UCG in their own households. “They just need to follow the law of gestation. I have already planted the seed, we will just wait for it to grow in their hearts and minds. Then in the future, we will all benefit from the harvest,” he said.

He said many have learned about UCG but only few implement it because “the quick-fix mindset influences people’s short-term view and behavior in responding to the emerging socio-economic issues and their solutions. Agriculture always follows the law of gestation, that is, there is time for sowing and reaping. Technically we can provide the simplest manual in container gardening which requires good values of doing it, one of which is how to maintain positive attitude while waiting for the right time for harvest. But, unfortunately, we cannot provide a manual how to be patient.”

Rom had been invited to give lectures on UCG in various places. In 2008, he was invited to participate in the Thai-Pinoy Exchange study visits by the LOCOA. While in Thailand, he introduced UCG to the Human Settlement Foundation and the Four Region Slum Network, which integrated it into their urban planning. Early this year, he was invited by the Australian National University to talk to its doctoral students on his experiences working in communities in Manila that was hit by Typhoon Ondoy-Banaba, San Mateo, Rizal and Bagbag, Novaliches, Quezon City. At least 300 families benefited from UCG, which later became the central livelihood of the program called Social Enterprise Capital Augmentation Program (SECAP). Last April, he was invited to speak to the participants of the 4th National Volunteers Summit held at the South East Asia Social Leadership Institute (SEARSOLIN) of the Xavier University (XU). Then last July 16, 2011, he was invited by the Hijo Resources Corporation, the first and one of the biggest banana exporting company based in Madaum, Tagum City to conduct an on-site seminar-workshop and skills training on UCG.

In all these trainings and speaking engagements, Rom always points out that there are people who show great interest about the project only to use it just as a source of “messianic” funding from international donor organizations. Others sustain the garden but only for showcase purposes rather than growing crops for food security and survival, while others do it to avoid penalties rather than ecological sanitation and environmental protection. But one of the topmost hindrances to the successful implementation of UCG is “when people always find not their capacity of doing but their limitations.” Whenever he encounters such kind of people, Rom always utter his personal mantra: “Do not limit your mind in a limited space, because limited space requires wider minds.”

“Admittedly, not everyone is interested in agriculture, our parents and fore-parents inculcated in us the idea that it is a profession of burden and punishment. In school, we were punished by cleaning the garden if we were late in flag ceremonies and always hear ‘nangamatis’, ‘nangalabasa’, ‘nangamote’ and all other derogatory statement if you fail in an examination. In the provinces, we always hear many parents say, ‘if you won’t do well in school, you stop and work in the farm all your life’,” he said. 

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