Eleventh Hour: Climate change and food security in the Philippines

By Neil Ian Lumanlan 

How can Filipino farmers deal with global fertilizer shock and climate change, and continue to feed us?


Last week, the European Union’s earth observation program Copernicus released new data that 2021 was the fifth warmest year on record, with the last seven years as the hottest years while carbon dioxide and methane concentrations continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. In May of 2015, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that carbon dioxide levels breached the 400 parts per million (ppm) mark, a first in human history.

The last decade was full of extreme weather events in the Philippines. Farmers bear the impact of climate change—with crop, fish, and livestock losses from extreme heat and prolonged drought, severe monsoon rains, and the increasing frequency of violent typhoons. Last month, Category 5 typhoon Odette registered an agricultural damage costing P11 billion, ranking third as the costliest typhoon in the Philippines, close to the damage of Pablo in 2012 and Yolanda in 2013. It was reported that 61,000 hectares of agricultural land were damaged. When typhoon Odette formed in the Pacific Ocean, we were in the middle of a La Niña season, similar to the years prior to Ondoy and Pablo. 

Is our local food supply at greater risk in the coming decades due to climate change? Are we entering a decade of very expensive food? Local fertilizers tripled in prices due to extreme weather events that depressed global supplies. The Texas arctic blast in February 2021 and Hurricane Ida in the US last August disrupted fertilizer production. Severe winters in Europe and Asia drove prices of natural gas to five times. Reports on US natural gas production cannot meet the demands in Europe. The high energy costs pushed China to stop exporting fertilizers until July 2022.

Industrial agriculture contributes one-fourth of all global warming emissions, as liquid natural gas is a key ingredient in making nitrogen fertilizers while coal is a primary energy source for manufacturing ammonia and urea.

What can the Filipino farmer do to become less reliant on imported nitrogen fertilizers to sustain our population? Prior to the German industrial production of ammonia in 1913, the world relied on guano and animal manures to grow food.

I can only assume that price spike in fertilizer prices has driven an increased use for poultry and manure, but these may not be sufficient. Pig manure is another underutilized source of nitrogen and phosphorus. The use of manures may be beneficial to croplands near animal farms, as its bulk and low concentration of nutrients make it costly to transport farther.

Farmers may need to find additional natural sources of nitrogen in the form of green manure from leguminous trees. The leaves of Ipil-ipil and Madre de cacao are rich in nitrogen and can be incorporated into the soil directly or composted first. Planting legume trees in the borders of rice paddies and croplands could naturally enrich the soil, as well as provide a habitat for beneficial insects and birds.

Azolla, a water fern harboring a symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria, can benefit rice farmers if cultured in submerged rice paddies and serve as natural fish feed in aquaculture ponds of fish farmers. The sludge from the bottom of fishponds can provide nitrogen and phosphorus for rice and other crops.

Can Filipino farmers become fertilizer-efficient and reverse global warming at the same time?

The ancient Amazonian civilizations may provide us with guidance to thrive through climate upheavals as they did for more than 2,000 years before the arrival of Spaniards. Ancient Amazonian people left behind dark soils covering an area the size of France, which are highly productive to this day. They named these dark soils terra preta, which was rediscovered by a Dutch soil scientist. Researchers have accumulated knowledge in the past two decades about terra preta. They found that these soils are rich in charcoal, animal and fish bones, manures, and organic matter. 

Biochar is a different type of charcoal produced at a high temperature and smokeless burning of crop residues such as rice husks and straws, corn stalks and husks, and coconut husks. By mixing biochar and beneficial microorganisms with crop residues and animal wastes, we can mimic terra preta soils. The benefit lies in the fact that terra preta soils can hold moisture longer in the tropical heat and retain nutrients even with the tropical rains. Using biochar with chemical fertilizers have also shown increasing yields. Continuously adding biochar and composts on tropical soils also gradually increase yield through several years.

Millions of Filipino farmers can remove carbon from the atmosphere and lock it in the earth for thousands of years thereby reducing global warming. Soils containing biochar also have shown reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

With the support of the government, the private sector, and consumers, Filipino farmers could contribute to the drawdown of greenhouse gases while continuously feeding the country. This may also open doors to financial support from industrial nations in the form of climate credits.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein



Climate Reality Leader Neil Ian Lumanlan is a circular bio-economy consultant in the space of alternative proteins and regenerative agriculture. He is a coordinator for the Food Security Cluster of The Climate Reality Project Philippines and an advisory committee member of the US-based International Biochar Initiative.


This article was originally published on The Climate Reality Project Philippines’ weekly column for the Manila Bulletin called Eleventh Hour.

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