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Integrating Sustainable Agriculture Concepts in Upland Farming:Healthy Soils, Crops, and People

Updated on March 14, 2018
rodrigo sebidos profile image

The author is a graduate of Agriculture at the University of the Philippines.A teacher at the Visayas State University, Baybay City, Leyte.

Let me out ! Sweet  Embrace of Venus-Eaten Alive !
Let me out ! Sweet Embrace of Venus-Eaten Alive !
                         Quote from JFK
Quote from JFK
                       World  Food Supply
World Food Supply


Crops and man have co-evolved over the last 100,000 years, but their relationship was only best appreciated in the last 10,000 yeas when agriculture was further developed by a man in the hope of feeding its expanding population.

Ten years from now, that is the year 2025, it is predicted that 8 billion mouths will be coming to dinner.Technological advances will be of course available to support food production, but there are limits that technological advances can do to his environment.

According to Richardson and Stubbs (1977),"There are biological limits to the extent that human beings can manipulate their environment.The understanding and respect of these limits will influence our biological and cultural survival." If there is a grain of truth about his predictions, then we are threading in a very thin line, agriculture is straining its sinew to the limit and yet food shortages will be intense in developing countries and the burden of supplying what is lacking will delegate to developed countries, the question now, are they willing to share it with their neighbors ?

                     Food for THought
Food for THought

What is Sustainable Agriculture ( SA)?

"Those clowns who are talking of feeding a big population in the year 2000 from make believe “green revolution” ....should learn some elementary biology, meteorology, agricultural economics, and anthropology, Paul Erlich, 1977.

Feeding the world's rapidly expanding human population, if these can be done, is not going to be accomplished solely from the development of a few hybrid grains, however, high yielding the crops may be.

Sustainable agriculture (SA) has been variously defined, therefore there has been no precise and accurate definition of sustainable agriculture. However, SA has been variously described depending on how it is used. SA descriptors include the following; Organic, Ecological, Regenerative, Biodynamic, Permanent, Alternative, Nature/Natural, Low input(LISA), and Low-input sustainable agriculture(LEISA)

A more definitive definition states that “SA is any practice, philosophy, or system of production that makes agriculture: Economically feasible, Ecologically sound, Socially just and humane, Equitable, Culturally appropriate, and Grounded on holistic science, Zamora,1996. The many facets of SA, therefore, may include the following approaches: Proactive, Experiential, Participatory, and Flexible.

                               cover crop
cover crop

Will it work ?

There is no doubt that SA will work well in this region.Long before SA concepts or philosophies were formulated, our ancestors are already practicing it, but why the seemingly slow pace of the cultivated agricultural lands low output?

Two theories emerged, the first theory , when foreign colonizers changed the agricultural landscape by replacing diverse indigenous varieties in favor of plantation mono crops to served their country of origin, then large tracts of lands were converted for this purpose at the expense of the natives.

The second theory was based on the arrival of the so-called“ Gren Revolution”. Farmers were lured and further marginalized for the promise of high economic returns except for the haciendas. Now is the time to re-visit these indigenous practices and return to the basics.

For sustainable agriculture to be successful , the proper mix between the intuitive wisdom of the experienced practitioner (the Farmer ) with the analysis of those formally trained in the sciences ( scientists /researchers ) must be found. Zamora,1996.

                     Delicious  "Shakoy"- a local donut
Delicious "Shakoy"- a local donut

The ASEAN Situation:

To fit the concepts and philosophies of sustainable agriculture, the Southeast Asian countries were identified primarily for the reasons that these countries share a common aspiration and problems of developing nations.

Some of these countries have been practicing SA for a long time and result of these experiences has been shared, adapted by other countries in the region. We shall see what SA has done to them.


                      ASEAN Countries
ASEAN Countries
                       Women at planting time
Women at planting time

History and Geography

Established in August 5, 1967, the Association of SouthEast Asian Nation (ASEAN ) by the original 5 member countries , namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Philippines, and later joined by Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Laos, primarily to establish lasting peace and order in the region, protect and respect the environment and share equal economic opportunities of the region.

Geographically located between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, 60 percent of the landmass belongs to the uplands. Agriculture is the main occupation of upland inhabitants as the source of food and livelihood. Women's plays a vital role in crop production, providing cheap labor during planting season.

Human population in this region varies, World Bank (June9, 2015) estimate showed that the Philippines has the highest population growth-101.1 million, Malaysia-30million, Vietnam-94,1 million, and Thailand-66.6 million among others compared with their respective population count during the common base year of 2007.

Dominant land forms in this regions are normally uplands or hilly-lands with slopes even higher than 18 percent, and major problem of the region is soil degradation therefore, it's not uncommon to find this land unproductive due to soil erosion, acidification, salination, desertification, deforestation among others, aside from social, political and economic problems.

But history will tell us that the SouthEast Asian region are the most complex ecosystem in Asia where 60 percent of its inhabitants live in the uplands, growing crops to support rural communities and economy of the region as well. In fact, their agricultural system is one of the most resilient and time-tested in the region.

                          Mystery the Deep
Mystery the Deep
                   Root causes of land degradation
Root causes of land degradation


We don't need to send probes to prove SA, just listen to our small farmers for they will provide the wisdom behind SA. Experiences from farmers who follow SA are well documented. For instance, in the Philippines, farmers maintain plots of vegetables for family consumption separate from those produce for the market.

In Zimbabwe, farmers still used open- pollinated varieties which are better adapted to local conditions, while, in South America even the poorest and most isolated farmers will not adopt technical recommendation if they are not in accordance with the specific natural and socio-economic conditions under which they produce.In Laos, farmers practice integrating livestock and other crops such as maize and cassavas into rice production.

There are many other examples favoring SA practices. some of them can be categories as soil and water conservation measures, increase nutrient supply, and cycling, improving soil health and quality, improve pest management, and increase biodiversity.

                         Problem Soils
Problem Soils

Healthy Soil, Healthy crop, Healthy people

Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and hormones are not included in the integration.Only practices that conform to SA philosophies are recognized and presented here. The appropriate decision or application or combinations of these technologies are site and situation specific.

Agricultural practices that conform to SA philosophies

(click column header to sort results)
Biological / Physical
soil conservation
cover crops, hedgerows, contours, fallow , strip cropping
prevent erosion, compaction, increase infeltration, aggregation
water conservation
cover crops, mulching, intercropping, terracing, dikes catchment canals, bounds
prevent runoff, modulate rain splash, increase retention, reduce evaporation
nutrient supply/cycling
cover crops, intercropping, crop rotation, catch crop
N- supply, N-cycling, increase organic matter, microbial activity
soil quality/health
cover crops, crop rotation, intercropping,mulching
increase organic matter, modulate pH, buffering capacity, microbial activity
pest management
cover crops, intercropping, crop rotation, bio-pesticide
insectary crop, increase parasitism, beneficial insects, reduced pests incedence
cover crops, crop rotation, intercropping, alley cropping
increase soil fauna / flora, presence of beneficial insects and microbes
Recommended cover crops for the tropics are leguminous crops (eg. Cowpea, mungbean, etc.)
                           Maize Gene Pool
Maize Gene Pool

Our Genetic Heritage

One of the major goals of SA is to promote biodiversity in the uplands by protecting and conserving our crop's genetic heritage for generations to come. Modern agriculture (Green Revolution ) has led to the genetic erosion of indigenous cultivars in favor of mono-cropped hybrid varieties.

Lost genetic resources will never be recovered and what is disheartening if those cultigens carry resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses may be low yielding, but farmers can always rely on them to produce enough food for the family.

Modern crop varieties, like hybrids are high yielding, but have a narrow genetic base and consequently susceptible to pest and disease attack compared with their parents. Likewise, the apparent hybrid vigor will only be expressed in the presence of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. These agricultural inputs are not needed in the healthy soil, healthy crop, and healthy people.

                  Complex agricultural system
Complex agricultural system

Recommendation and Conclusion

There is no doubt that SA can change significantly crop production in marginal uplands for the benefits of rural communities and ecological restoration for the global community.

The application of different technologies is site and situation specific, therefore, no prescribed recommendation for all sites.

Prohibiting the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hybrids, GMO's restore ecological balance in the long term and increase production in the short-term. Consequently, may lead to healthy soil, healthy crop, and healthy people.

                 "Kinilaw"- food for the gods ?
"Kinilaw"- food for the gods ?
                      Tuna-Sashimi- Pinoy Style
Tuna-Sashimi- Pinoy Style


Erlich, Paul In Richardson W.N and T. Stubbs.1977.Plants, Agriculture, and Human Society.W. A. Benjamen, Inc. Reading, Massachusetts.353 pp.

Richardson, W. N and T. Stubbs.1977. Plants, Agriculture, and Human Society. W. A. Benjamen, Inc.353 pp.

Zamora, Oscar. 1996. The imperatives of sustainable agriculture for food security in paper presented at the International Conference of HEKS partners and friends on food security.

Zamora, Oscar. 1999.The sustainable agriculture framework: Concepts, Misconception, and Barriers to Adoption and Opportunities.pp.8-30.In: Go, S. S., et al.(eds.).Curriculum Revision for the Integration of Sustainable Agriculture Concepts.SEARCA-VISCA-ACAP.206 pp.

WorldBank.GMA-News TV. June,9,2015.

                    Eat varied fruits
Eat varied fruits


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    • peedshane74 profile image

      Shane Peed 

      2 years ago from Ft. Dodge, IA USA

      I have to comment on this article. I have projects in USA, Russia, Philippines, and Ghana.

      While I agree with a lot of what you stated here I also understand the issues behind large farms and small farms.

      First, we do need large farms to keep up with demand and our growing populations.

      Understand as a large farmer it is never our best foot forward to have to use any fungicides or pesticides at any time. It costs us money and as a general rule of thumb, I would prefer more profit from my crops. If at any time they were toxic or had any kind of ramifications we know of to our consumers this would not be allowed on our farms.

      I like to use litter as a source of fertilizer. There is a trade-off when using litter as it increases the presence of weeds severely in the crops.

      I am not against GMO but I do not use it anywhere on our projects as I do not see a need for it right now.

      The last statement I would like to make absolutely will you not be able to fix soils on a large scale that have been depleted in nutrients, organic matter and many other variables that destroy soils. I personally have consulted for farms that have this problem it takes years to turn this around. There are no short cuts to making this happen. It took years to destroy it and will take years to bring it back.

      I speak for my friends and owners that have large farms. We are cognizant of the issues regarding large production and do the best we can to provide people with great products.

      Marrying the two styles together of farming is something we need to do and not be reliant on synthetic products and as a whole the farming community is doing the best we can trying to achieve these goals and provide consumers with healthy products.

      I enjoyed your article.



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