THE newly minted strategic partnership between the Philippines and Australia opens the door to a more comprehensive road map of cooperation between the two countries.
Among the wide array of fields covered by the partnership is soil and land management. Specifically, it is about how the Philippines can draw from Australian expertise in framing a national soil health plan.
Under a memorandum of agreement, Australia will provide $4.4 million to fund a five-year collaboration in scientific and technological research to improve initiatives in soil knowledge and management.
Soil degradation is triggered mainly by agricultural, industrial and commercial pollution. Farm lands are under siege from urban expansion, unsustainable agricultural practices and prolonged climatic changes.
Soil degradation is now a global scourge. Almost a third of the world's arable land has disappeared in the last four decades, based on figures from the United Nations. It is estimated that all of the Earth's topsoil could become unproductive within 60 years if current rates of loss continue.
The results could be catastrophic. As agricultural lands shrink, farm productivity drops, and the world's food supply is severely threatened. Countries in Asia and Africa that depend heavily on agriculture for economic growth are the most vulnerable, but the entire planet will feel the fallout.
The Philippines has long wrestled with the problem of soil degradation. A paper by five agricultural scientists as far back as 2009 noted that 5.2 million hectares were “seriously degraded, resulting in a 30 to 50 percent reduction in soil productive and water retention capacity.”
A National Action Plan for 2004 to 2010 identified the control of soil degradation as a major research priority. The paper also cited the “need for a coordinated and continual appraisal and protection” of the country's soil resource1s.
The government has responded by trying to put together a regulatory, institutional and financial structure to address land degradation.
One bold step was to integrate sustainable land management (SLM) policies into the development plans of local governments, with guidance from a broad spectrum of government agencies that include the Department of Agriculture and the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board, and the participation of community groups and other stakeholders.
In this cross-sectoral approach, demonstration sites will be set up where farmers can learn and adopt various methods of soil conservation farming and water resource1s conservation.
The National Soil Health Plan being worked out by Manila and Canberra is expected to incorporate or build on many of the features of the SLM program. But the main thrust of the agreement is to identify areas of collaborative studies in soil and land management between research and development institutions and the designated agencies from the two countries.
The partners will also “co-organize and co-support meetings, workshops and symposia to exchange knowledge, information and lessons on science and technology, strategy development and prioritization,” and jointly monitor and evaluate the implementation of activities under the memorandum.
It will not be the first time Australia is helping the Philippines fight back against soil degradation. In 2019, an Australian project explored soil and nutrient management strategies to boost low vegetable yields in Samar, Mindanao, Leyte and Bohol.
El Niño challenge
Among that project's recommendations was to develop strategies to improve efficiency of fertilizers and overcome soil acidity. Many farms had become barren because the topsoil had lost its nutrients due to inefficient single-cropping methods.
Now more than ever, the Philippines needs a viable and sustainable program to curb land degradation. The agriculture sector is already straining under the weight of declining crop yields, soaring fertilizer costs, dropping farmgate prices and creeping inflation.
A bigger challenge looms with the onset of a severe El Niño episode that is expected to last until early next year. The dry spells and drought that it will spawn could devastate farmlands, and many may not be able to regain their productivity.
Healthy soil and increased agricultural productivity is the objective of the team-up between Australia and the Philippines to stem land degradation. Our government must see to it that the program is promptly and properly implemented.
The fate of the country's food security depends on it.
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