Food makes us sick in other ways. Food could carry toxic chemical contaminants and germs which food picks up in the farms or on the way to our kitchen. Indirectly, growing food can make us sick by polluting the soil and water used for growing plants or farming fish. Much of the garbage that is produced in Metro Manila is linked to food; plastics used for packaging are among the most damaging. Plastics block rivers and drainage facilities, causing flooding. When broken down, they produce microplastics that have been detected in fish. Finally, untreated sewage in Metro Manila finds its way to Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay lake, the major fish sources of the Metropolis.
Ultimately, our personal choice of food, values that guide us in making this choice, the form food is consumed, the manner by which it is produced and delivered to us, constitute what we describe as a dysfunctional food system—the root of most of our modern-day problems in Metro Manila. Ever so prevalent in this mega city are chronic diseases, pollution, poverty, and urban decay as manifested in slums, floods, traffic, and crime.
This analysis led us to our Vision that a consumer-led approach—a shift in food habit—would start a cascade of consequences, leading to our goal of creating a food system that will nurture the health of consumers and the environment, adapt to climate change and provide farmers a decent income, while being sensitive to diversity in food culture.
The key element of this envisioned system is a more diverse food on the table. This is a departure from the trend of the last 100 years since the food system industrialized. The trend up until now is towards decreasing diversity of food in favor of a few species that are suitable for mass production and distribution. Among these are grain crops (e.g. rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans), sugar, chicken, pigs, beef, eggs, milk, and a few species of seafood. In Metro Manila, it is graphically illustrated by the shift from carinderia (traditional restaurant) in our childhood with its parade of native dishes displayed on counter tops in shiny stainless-steel pots, to the ubiquitous glass and steel air-conditioned fast food restaurants with standard menu featuring mostly rice and chicken or bangus plus sugary drink. The carinderia culture is fast disappearing as fast food conquers the restaurant territory.
Filipino food used to be as diverse as the culture that nurtured as many as 180 native languages, 10 native scripts, and at least 3 foreign languages. Food diversity has, over the years, progressively declined along with the native ingredients that created, and the languages and scripts that described it. Many of the traditional food ingredients only remain in neglected botanical collections, in the minds of old chefs and faded recipe books, and in folk songs. The meaning of food in the Philippines has narrowed down to only one kind: rice, a grain introduced to the Philippines a few thousand years ago from Southern China and evolved with human care in the variety of ecosystems in the archipelago. When Filipinos talk about food security, they mean rice security.
Rice itself became a victim of its own success. Its diversity declined with modernity. While as late as 50 years ago, we had hundreds of different types varying in grain color, shape, eating quality, size, plant type, maturity, and uses, there is only one kind dominating today in our dining table: white, medium-grain length, a plant that is short-statured, and matures in 4 months or less. White rice, as we know it today, is a product of modern plant breeding brought to our table by an industrial system that removed most of its nutrients and left a grain that is almost 100% starch. The great majority of the thousands of traditional varieties are only found in some long-term cold storage in a couple of fund-starved facilities.
Presently, Filipinos do not consider themselves to have eaten if they have not eaten white rice. In very poor households in the city, the only food they can afford is white rice. They would rather spend on expensive white rice and eat a nutritionally inferior side dish than go for cheaper rice with a nutritious side dish. Indeed, the very poor may eat nothing but white rice and salt on certain days. While newly developed Asian countries show a declining trend in rice consumption, the increasing trend continues in the Philippines.
Because white rice is so cheap, so convenient, and so deeply entrenched in Philippine food culture, it is almost unthinkable that Filipinos can be weaned from white rice. No politician today can survive public opinion telling people to eat less rice. Yet any attempt to change our food habit to correct a dysfunctional food system cannot avoid targeting rice, specifically white rice, for the simple reason that it is the major cause.
We chose Metro Manila as the setting for a campaign to change food habits, and thus correct the dysfunctional food system, because it shares many of the conditions in big cities; its middle class population (about 30% of the total, our initial target) is highly educated with the financial capacity to experiment with food choices. The city has trendsetting consumers, and thus a change in their food consumption pattern can have far-reaching influence. If we can fix Metro Manila, we can fix any city, and the whole country for that matter. If we can make the dinner plate more diverse, we can make the farms that supply it equally diverse; in this manner, farming will be more profitable, climate-change resilient, and environment-friendly. It is our expectation that, along with these changes, we can revive the diversity of food cultures we once enjoyed.
In the following discussions, we will elaborate on how we see food habits will be changed, how the production sector will respond by diversification, and how marketing can be transformed to bring primary producers closer to the consumer, thereby reducing the retail price while maximizing farmer profit. We will show how our diverse food culture can be nurtured back to its past diversity. We will describe how the environment will benefit from this transformation, and how technology and policy will enable this transformation. Lastly, we will describe how the by-products and wastes of every step in the food system can be recycled to achieve circularity and greater efficiency.
The timing has never been better to start working on this Vision. In the last 10 years, a series of scientific discoveries and technological achievements, policy initiatives, and global and local movements, have conspired to deconstruct the prevailing industrial food system. The latest of this is COVID-19, which eroded the trust in the system and drove people to produce their own food. At home it is not rice they are producing; it is mainly vegetables, a large group of nutritious food. This newly restored habit of producing and eating what they grow to make the diet more diverse is a lifesaver during the pandemic. The Metro Manila resident can be persuaded to become the modern prosumer—an emerging pillar for a food-secure city.
Essentially, our strategy calls for a change in food culture triggered by increased confidence on science as a source of knowledge and enabled by Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIRe) technology. This confidence has never been so high in Philippine society as it is today. This resulted primarily from an accumulation of impressions that came with science-enabled predictions and responses to disasters, such as typhoons, volcanic eruptions, floods, and droughts. Lately, the power of digital technology was in full display during the COVID-19 crisis, delivering food right into the doorstep of houses. Nothing sticks in Filipinos’ minds deeper than help during a calamity.
Thus, society’s reduced confidence in the prevailing industrial food system, increased confidence in the ability of science and technology to help create an alternative system, and newly gained ability to produce and consume food other than rice, will make our journey to create a new system less daunting than it would have been a few months ago.
The process of changing a dysfunctional system in a logo
We designed a simple logo, which flows into an animated diagram to illustrate our concept of the process of correcting our dysfunctional food system. The logo is symbolic in many ways. First is the use of tightly connected hexagons to show the four main components of the food system: consumption, marketing, production, and waste management. The hexagon is common in nature, living or non-living. The shape makes the most efficient use of space in packing, as bees know so well when they make beehives. Thus, the hexagon symbolizes our commitment to learn from nature to achieve efficiency in the food system.
Consumption is at the center, which illustrates our belief that responsible consumption is the key to transforming the entire system. Consumption is tightly connected to the other components to indicate that the system should ideally be a fully integrated system. Consuming need not be disconnected from the producing, marketing, and waste management tasks if the consumer does all the three steps herself in her own household! This type of multifunctional prosumer rings so true to many quarantined households in Metro Manila during the COVID-19 crisis. The system can be so tightly connected that one component can easily blend with the others. While the consumer can also be the producer, the producer can also be the trader. All of them can be waste managers. In this tight system, overall efficiency is maximized.
By 2050, food on the Metro Manila resident’s table will be a combination of food from her own kitchen garden or home food factory producing clean meat, the neighborhood urban farm, the artisan farm and aquaculture farther away, and a distant industrial farm or fishery. Between 2020 and 2050, the balance will shift progressively away from specialized monoculture as the main source of food to a more diversified industrial and artisan farms, then finally to the city itself and individual households. The gradual shift may be imagined as de-industrialization of the food system.
The dining table of the future will have more food from the sea, like the dining table of our ancestors. After all, the Philippine archipelago has the 5th longest coastline at 36,000 km and 60% of its population is living on the coast. If farmed, fish is more efficient than any land-based source of protein; as little as 1.5 kg of feed is needed to produce 1 kg of flesh.
Changing food consumption patterns
1. Education. Since our Vision is anchored on changing food habits, our priority action targets food habits. Habits develop from a young age, so our Vision calls for incorporating food system education at all levels. This is a drastic change from the usual gardening curriculum at the primary and secondary levels. It is training to be a responsible food consumer. After all, not everyone will become a farmer, but all of us eat.
It calls for lessons in networks and connections at all levels in the food system more than specialized technical skills in growing pechay. In increasing complexity as the student goes up the ladder, it will cover such topics as farm ecology, nutrient and water cycles, human nutrition and health, and the critical importance of considering the needs of the gut microbiota in making food choices. It will deal with understanding the processes and consequences of the food system more than skills in any particular component. In this manner, the educated person learns the connection of the food decisions she makes everyday with mega problems of society. She will understand that she has the power to create these problems or solve them.
The above is general education. For specialists such as farmers, aquaculturists, food technologists, and health care workers, the curriculum can be tailored to focus on their special needs. Farmer training may go deeper into the farm ecology. Food technology may go deeper into the effect of processing on nutritional and health value of food, aside from the usual food durability, flavor and safety issues. Medical training may go deeper into the influence of food on the immune system, cellular repair processes, and organ recovery after illness.
2. The Planetary Health Diet (PHD) Plus App. Food preference is purely a product of culture. One eats what her parents ate and her parents eat what their parents ate. It used to be that way. Now, children are influenced more by what they see on their gadgets and adults are influenced more by their children’s food preferences, not the other way around. So why not make a gadget that will guide everyone in making food decisions? The envisioned PHD Plus App is precisely what this is about.
The PHD Plus App is basically a combination of the GenoPalate concept of utilizing genomic data for making personalized nutrition recommendations (a list of what to eat and what not to eat) with the PHD concept, which considers human and environmental health together. Thus, it utilizes not only genomic data but also data on environmental consequences of consuming a certain foodstuff.
The proposed PHD Plus App takes the complexity to added levels. It will consider other biological data such as age, sex, ethnicity, and health status. Consumers can also set the App to include their financial capability (e.g. what you can eat for $5) and values-related information such as: profitability of local farmers, seasonal availability, taboos, and food preference (vegetarian?). For a consumer with a tight budget, the App may recommend kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica) for greens in the diet rather than romaine lettuce. For someone concerned about reducing food production’s impact on climate change, the App may choose camote (sweet potato) rather than rice as staple. The daily health status can be monitored through real time analysis of human excreta using sensors installed in toilets that transmit information for processing to the App. The App can be used for shopping, cooking, or ordering food from a cloud kitchen or restaurant. If this sounds too complicated, it is. By 2050, the smartphone or its equivalent will have the capability to crunch the needed data and the needed granular data will be available in real time.
3. Feeding programs. Every caring society must have a feeding program. It is the most basic service to humanity. It is done in schools to teach and nourish children. It is done to serve victims of calamity or even those who find daily living a calamity by itself. Institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military plan meals for everyone. Meals are personalized as in hospitals, or less so as in prisons and military camps. The PHD Plus App can be used in all of these. The feeding programs are to be integrated with food systems education.
4. Production programs. Food production programs are market-oriented. They aim to supply what the market demands. The problem is that market demand can be manipulated, as advertising companies know too well. People who stand to benefit from the change in demand manipulate it. Among these are agribusiness, fast food restaurants, and traders. Watch a general patronage TV program and you will not wait for 5 minutes to see happy children and handsome teenagers eating junk food.
To achieve our Vision, we need to manipulate market demand in the positive direction. As the primary step, government can take a more active part in promoting responsible consumption along the tradition established by the Philippine Rice Research Institute when it campaigned for consumption of brown rice and less rice.
Government can go farther by using the PHD as a guide in designing a food production program that will respond to the expected change in demand caused by the shift in eating habits. For example, the PHD applied in the Philippine setting calls for an increase in consumption of starchy root and tuber crops by 77% and a decrease in cereals (e.g. rice, corn, wheat products) by 36%. Using the PHD alone as a guide, this would suggest increased government support for production of camote, cassava, taro, yam, and arrowroot among other crops that can be locally produced. Camote, being a short-season crop, may be produced following the wet-season rice crop in place of the dry-season rice crop. In this manner, supply can change with the anticipated change in demand. Without active government support, it may take longer for farmers to make the adjustment, and there will be a prolonged period of increased prices for the PHD recommended foodstuff that are short in supply. This may be a reason for the dietary shift to take longer.
If food recommendations consider the revival of food culture diversity, improved resilience to climate change, and limitations of land and water, the list of possible foodstuff will expand as it will cover not only the traditional foods, but also future-forward foods or livestock and fish feeds such as single-cell proteins, algae, insects, artificial meat, milk, and eggs. We may not need to start growing or eating these tomorrow, but it is important that the biological resources needed to produce all of these be conserved. We are losing these resources by the day.
Diversification in the rice farm
From being a luxury food reserved for the ruling class during pre-colonial times 500 years ago, rice is now a staple food for everyone and is grown in about 4.5 million hectares (area harvested) throughout the Philippines every year. From the air, one cannot miss the expansive rice fields of Central Luzon, which is the main source of rice for Metro Manila. During the dry season, about a third of these areas are devoid of vegetation due to lack of irrigation systems. Other farming activities such as growing vegetables and poultry operations are in scattered patches not usually recognizable from the air. No wonder, the rice farm is the icon of Philippine farming.
Rice is a water-hungry food crop, requiring 2500 liters on the average but more than 5000 liters in extreme cases to produce a kilogram of rough grain. Among the major food crops, it has the highest water requirement. It uses up as much as 88% of the country’s diverted water from watersheds to the east of Metro Manila.
The concept of industrial farm in the Western context is large swatches of wheat, corn, and soybeans among the major food crops. This is no different in the Philippines, except that the large patches of rice in the country are owned by millions of farmers, making the average farm (about one hectare) barely sufficient to support the basic needs of a farm family, while the farmer in the USA lives comfortably in his 50-hectare farm. The rest of the players in the food system (e.g. traders, millers, supermarkets) are doing well in the Philippines, as in the industrialized West.
What keep the rice farmers going are endless subsidies from the government, such as free irrigation, free inputs (e.g. seeds and fertilizers), and credit with minimal interest. In the ultimate analysis, these subsidies benefit everyone in the food system, except the farmer who remains poor. These are financed by regular budget allocations and tariffs from rice imports.
Policy makers envision a rice farmer to be happy and globally competitive, producing 10 tons of rice and selling it at a margin of approximately Php 7 per kg. This is a pipe dream without subsidy because the average yield of rice today is only about 4 metric tons per hectare. Farmer profit dives to almost zero when traders manipulate the market and buy at only a little above production cost.
But assuming that average landholding remains one hectare, the average cropping intensity is increased to two (the same field is used for growing rice twice a year) by the massive expenditure on irrigation, and the traders’ profit is moderated, the government’s dream will only give the average farmer Php 140,000 per year, barely above poverty line, which is Php 120,000. This profit will be reduced in the next generation when the farm is divided among many children. Obviously, using the best assumptions, continuing to grow rice may be good for the traders and other players in the value chain but it will not make the rice farmer happy.
Because excessive white rice consumption is linked to unfavorable health outcomes as presented earlier, and it is burdensome to the government, farmers and the environment, our aim to reduce white rice consumption and production is justified. The first move must come from the consumer. She must not only reduce rice consumption but also increase consumption of other foodstuff. The next paragraphs will describe the strategy for diversification in the rice farm, the proposed response to the anticipated change in eating habit.
Diversification to high-value alternative staples is one obvious strategy, and it is one objective that our Vision hopes to achieve on a large scale. The challenge with this solution is that the strong candidates as alternative staples to be grown in the rice environment (camote and corn) have acceptability issues. Corn as a staple is used only in a few provinces and national figures show a declining trend in consumption. Camote presents a bigger challenge; it is only eaten as a snack food and not as staple. In addition, camote is more perishable and suffers from huge postharvest losses. Both corn and camote suffer from the stigma of being a poor man’s food. Obviously, these crops need a good press more than they need better agronomists.
To make corn more acceptable, there is an on-going project by the University of the Philippines Los Baños using rice-corn blends. Blending with white rice is not new to the Filipino taste; it has been done not only with corn but also with root and tuber crops as well as cooking type banana. Another approach is food processing to improve acceptability. Camote can be processed into noodles—a food item that is not a staple but more appealing to the local taste—and consumed on a regular basis at home and in restaurants. Sweet potato noodles are well accepted as a premium noodle in many Asian countries.
For demand creation, we are targeting the middle class who are better educated, with a higher disposable income for food. They can be persuaded to experiment with food choices if they understand the health impact of excessive white rice consumption, and they support contemporary values about the environment, food culture and farmer welfare.
Reducing rice consumption by partly switching to alternative and complementary staples is not sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the PHD. Based on prevailing consumption patterns, PHD calls for drastic increases in consumption of grain legumes and vegetables. These foodstuffs can easily be incorporated into the Filipino diet, but consumption is low mainly because of price and availability issues. Improved production and marketing technology can address these issues. Many of these crops are adapted to farming systems with rice.
Farm diversification is highly doable in the rice farm as it has subsidized irrigation, highly skilled farmers serviced by a good research and extension network, the greatest number of farmers and workers compared to other farming activities, and it is served by the best farm road network in the country. Increased income on the rice farms will give the highest socio-economic impact.
Diversification can initially target rice lands that are marginally suited to rice. Farmers in these areas are the poorest rice farmers. Instead of growing rice throughout the year, the farmer may choose to grow rice during the wet season, and switch to dryland crops during the rest of the year. In this manner, the limited amount of irrigation water can be spread over a wider area. Among the possibilities are corn, mungbean, camote, and vegetables, which are more profitable than rice and will be required in large quantities with the switch to PHD. For example, Camote and onion can easily give the farmer twice the profit from rice at conservative prices. Onion, unlike camote, has a stable demand but local supply is always short. In 2018, the country imported Php 1.2 billion worth of onion.
There are many other proven farm diversification options. Among the proven systems are rice-fish (a practice that is 2000 years old), rice-duck, and more diverse systems such as using rice straw as substrate for growing mushrooms, and spent mushroom substrate for feeding ruminants. The ruminants can produce milk, and the manure can be used in vermiculture to produce fertilizer for rice, completing the circular system. These examples of diversification provide opportunities for vertical and horizontal integration with enhanced income, security against losses, and better environmental outcomes. It creates year-round employment opportunities for the urban poor and particularly for women who have been displaced by the mechanization of rice farming. In contrast, labor use in monoculture rice farming is seasonal.
To encourage diversification, various models of diversification are on year-round display at the Future Rice Farm and Palayamanan (diversified rice farm) sites of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice). These serve as a laboratory for studying diversification options and implementing FIRe technologies, an educational farm tourism destination, and a marketplace for fresh and minimally processed products.
The diversified rice farms will likely supply food crops other than rice mostly during the dry season, as the environment may not be too favorable for dryland crops during the wet season. However, there are also technologies for growing dryland crops in rice paddies, such as farming in sorjan beds (raised beds in paddy field).
Improved technology also promises to reduce the negative environmental impact of rice monoculture, thus rice farming need not be so environmentally damaging. These technologies will also reduce costs and make the rice farmer more competitive in the global market.
Reducing the negative health impacts of white rice has also received due attention from PhilRice. Among the approaches is the use of varieties with better nutritional value. Government support in the form of more favorable policies on biotechnology and research and development (R and D) funding are much needed to bring these products to the consumer table.
In our vision, diversified rice farms will remain as a main source of plant-based food commodities by 2050. They will continue to produce rice but increasingly will produce other commodity foods and even high-value crops that are in demand, particularly those with good handling and storage qualities.
Some monocrop rice farmers in the best areas and those with bigger-sized farms will remain as the main supplier of rice in the country. To be globally competitive, these farms need to consolidate to make mechanization possible, thereby reducing labor cost and improving production efficiency.
With the above expected adjustments, rice production systems will tend to branch out into the following categories: diversified, integrated and intensified; high-tech (monoculture), and conventional (monoculture). The first two will be more compliant with environmental care, while high tech will be more dependent on FIRe technologies as well.
The artisan farm
The artisan farm has many alternate names depending on main objective and production method. They are usually located in peri-urban upland and hilly areas. All of them tend to be multifunctional lately. A new trend is the hobby farm that starts as a hobby, then evolves to become a tourism farm with the added function of training. The hobby farm’s main revenue eventually comes from selling farm products rather than tourism and training services.
Organic farms, a type of commercial artisan farm restricted by their production method, are gaining practitioners. At the moment, however, organic agricultural products are expensive and cater only to a niche market.
The conventional commercially oriented artisan farm supplies the bulk of high-value food crops today and it is likely to continue to do so. It is typically small, less than 5 hectares, but its main feature is diversity and labor intensity, requiring a high level of skill. It involves a wide range of crops, and may also include livestock, poultry, and fish. A few farms are conservation-oriented—they grow native species such as wild pig and chicken and heirloom crop varieties (e.g. black rice).
At the other extreme are capital-intensive, specialized high-tech farms with modern features such as net and plastic houses, drip irrigation, and non-native crops such as salad vegetables to provide year-round supply to the high-end market. Some artisan farmers also venture into food processing.
With such variety of options, the artisan farms can not only cater to a range of food preferences, but also provide food diversity needed in the PHD, increased farm employment, and revival of local food cultures.
The typical modern artisan farm is initiated by an educated entrepreneur, including the newly retired baby boomer, who is keen on farming as a lifestyle to support good health and mindful of environmental impact. She is the opposite of the traditional artisan farmer who had dropped out of school due to poverty, earns barely enough, afraid to take risks, shunned by banks, at the mercy of traders, does not inspire her own children to inherit her work, and continually looking to the government for support.
The modern artisan farmer is a keen experimenter, constantly trying new products, processes, and markets. In our Vision, she will serve as a trailblazer and an inspiration to other similarly placed entrepreneur, as well as traditional farmers. There are successful models where traditional farmers are assisted by the more advanced ones by providing them technical assistance as well as linking them to market. Indeed, many modern artisan farms also serve as government-accredited training centers.
The poster case of a modern artisan farm is the Costales Nature Farm in the province of Laguna. It started as a hobby by a retired overseas Filipino worker, became a commercial organic farm, then finally a tourist destination. It has the distinction of being the first government-accredited tourism farm and inspired many others. In 2019, the list of tourism farms and learning sites had expanded to 31 and 51 members, respectively, in the five provinces bordering Metro Manila.
Artisan farms feeding Metro Manila are concentrated in a region called CALABARZON, referring to the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon. When they flourish with increased demand for diverse food products, they will absorb labor that otherwise will migrate to and fill the slums of Metro Manila. They will attract new investors, inspire new business models, and energize the countryside with their idealism, knowledge, and money.
A fitting illustration of a new investor is the case of Mr. Crisanto Gualberto, a highly educated experienced farmer who plans to put up a network of small coconut-based farmers around a food innovation hub producing nutritious processed coconuts that the farmers would co-own. It will be a good model for combining the social orientation of artisan farming with the economic orientation of industrial farming. These new investors will be encouraged by new consumer habits, and will likely attract aquaculturists as well. Aquaculture is uncharted territory, with greater potential for food security and poverty alleviation in the Philippines than terrestrial farming.
The Future of Fish
The Philippines is severely handicapped by limitations of land and water in terrestrial farming, but not as much with harvesting food from the sea. The archipelago has seven times as much water as land and it has access to rich fishing grounds. If this resource is nurtured, it can continue to yield fish to 2050 and beyond. The yield from capture fishery will be supplemented by aquaculture.
Rice and fish comprise the basic Filipino food. Fish consumption makes sense because of the archipelagic nature and rich fisheries of the country. In Metro Manila specifically, three nearby large bodies of water supply most of the fish.
Aquaculture in the scale seen near Metro Manila is a relatively young industry. Capture fishery used to be the main source of fish for Metro Manila. Indeed, Manila Bay once supported the second largest fishery in the country. But overfishing, deterioration of water quality, habitat degradation, and rapid urbanization pushed down its fish yield to less than 10% of the level in the 1940s. The rivers flowing through Metro Manila suffered this fate sooner; they are no longer identified as an important source of commercial fish.
Altogether, the fish industry in the Philippines is second only to rice in number of jobs created. There are about 1.9 million fisherfolk engaged in fishing activities throughout the country, broken down into different sectors: capture fishing, aquaculture, fish vending, gleaning, fish processing, and others. While there are four times as many fisherfolk involved in capture fishing as there are fisherfolk involved in aquaculture, the latter accounted for more than 50% of fish tonnage reported in 2018 for the entire country. Poverty incidence in the fishing industry is high at 34%, and artisan fisherfolks are considered the poorest of the poor in Philippine society.
By 2050, it is estimated that 60% of the fish supply of Metro Manila will come from aquaculture. Today, all of the aquaculture around Metro Manila is essentially monoculture dominated by only two species (bangus and tilapia). Monoculture fish is a large scale commercial operation. In Laguna de Bay, big-time capitalists crowd out small fish pen owners and the lake itself, leaving little room for small operators and for navigation within the lake. The Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) had to reserve areas for these purposes and for native fish reproduction as well. The other major issue is water pollution from domestic, agricultural and industrial waste discharged into the lake by communities and farms and factories around the lake.
In the same way we envision diversification in the industrial type of rice farming, we envision diversification in aquaculture. However, the technology for diversification in aquaculture is not as nearly mature as diversification in rice. After all, our skill in fish culture in captivity is fairly recent compared to that in plant agriculture. We look at two models: aquaponics, which is growing fish and crops together in a controlled environment, and integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA). Both of these can significantly reduce the pollution of monoculture fish farming and increase fish productivity.
Both models require substantial investment. But we expect the hobbyists to show the way like in artisan farming. As we pointed out earlier, hobbyists have the money, are willing to experiment and take risks, are highly educated, and values-motivated. They can inspire and train traditional fisherfolks. Sustaining current efforts to clean up Manila Bay and the two lakes can accelerate diversification. Government supported R and D, incentives to the private sector, and subsidy for small aquaculturists will also help.
A highly successful aquaculture model involving artisan fisherfolk-turned-aquaculturists is demonstrated in the Panabo Mariculture Park in Davao Gulf. It is patterned after industrial parks where planned infrastructure and government services are provided and locators converge. In Panabo, the business unit (10- x 10-meter cages) is small enough for the small-scale aquaculturist. This small unit can generate a profit of Php 85,000 or Php 340,000 per hectare of water given that only 4 fishcages are allowed to allow for navigation and control pollution; for the same length of time (120 days) and the same amount of space, a rice farmer would earn only Php 70,000 in the best-case scenario. If aquaculturists diversify into high-value fish as we envision, their profits will go further up.
If fish can command the same public attention as rice, subsidies and favorable policies for the fish sector may come more easily. The ones who need this support the most are the artisan fisherfolk. There are close to a million of them in the entire country. Their fishing grounds need protection from poachers, illegal fishers, and polluters. Their fish need sanctuaries. They need better equipment. Sometimes they need to be protected from their own destructive fishing ways. And they can also be encouraged to do aquaculture.
We propose a new law creating the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a new national executive department at the same level and complementary to the existing Department of Agriculture. Without this legislation, government support for the food system may remain monopolized by the rice industry.
Urban farming will be our best chance of feeding Metro Manila sustainably into the far future. It is the system that has the least physical limit. Pushed to the extreme of human ingenuity, urban farming will be much less subject to the limitations of land, water, pests, global warming, calamitous weather, pollution, and labor that constrain contemporary farms. It can utilize practically limitless vertical space, purify seawater, isolate its facility from temperature and weather extremes, pests and diseases of plants and animals, reprocess its waste, and reduce labor by automation. Its main input and ultimate limit is energy, but energy is practically limitless coming from the sun. At the moment, all of humanity is using only a small fraction of this energy—less than 1% by some estimates. Technology is making energy cheaper every year, thus it is only a matter of time when food from urban farming will be cost-competitive with food from the sea and terrestrial farms. Combined with development of appropriate production systems, urban farming can produce practically every food component that can be produced by sea and land farming.
Just a decade ago, urban farming could only produce lettuce, tomato, and similar short-season high-value food crops. Today, new technologies are available to produce meat in the lab, without growing animals; thus it is not inconceivable that, in the future, every household can have a food factory that can produce most of what it needs. This is the ultimate in food security. For this to happen by 2050, considerable investment is needed for technology transfer and local R and D.
Between now and 2050, increasing sophistication in organization and technology in urban gardening is expected. Among the options are landscape gardening, community gardening using vacant lots and buildings, hydroponics, and an increasing use of vertical space. Creating the path for urban farming is a futuristic project of the University of the Philippines called SPICE Project. The strategy of the project is similar to that of the new artisan farms, that is, a multifunctional model for food production, but it is focused on controlled environments.
Unlike the new artisan farms that are privately owned, the SPICE Project is a government initiative with funding provided by the Department of Science and Technology. The idea is to establish a facility that can serve multiple functions: R and D, genetic resources conservation, food production, education, entertainment, and marketing. It is expected that hobbyists and experienced investors like in the case of artisan farms will replicate the concept. A new curriculum for training urban farmers will likely spin out of this university-based project.
By 2050, urban farming will have three types: conventional, organic and high-tech. The bulk of the food supply will progressively shift towards organic and high-tech. Communities will be required by law to set aside facilities for these, but their operation can be private (leased to investors) or done by the community itself through appropriate mechanisms such as cooperatives.
Marketing in the new food system
Among the various components of our 2050 Vision, the food marketing landscape has been quickly reshaped by technology. When home quarantine was imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a surge in demand for online food purchases. To meet this demand, entrepreneurs quickly organized home food deliveries ranging from 25-kg rice bags to ready-to-eat meals. Many of the entrepreneurs are farmers while the others partnered with farmers. This system is more flexible than existing wet markets, ambulant vendors and deliveries from restaurants because they can deliver a wider choice of foodstuff in a fresh form. Since long distance transport was hampered by travel restrictions, most of these products were sourced within or near communities. New trade relationships were established, and it is likely that these relationships will endure as consumers have realized the advantages of this new system. . This new marketing model can benefit from improved quality control and traceability.
In the above manner, we believe that the foundations of the marketing system we envision are already laid out. In the next 30 years, only fine-tuning will be needed. By 2050, we will have a highly efficient marketing system and a closer connection of consumers to their food enabled by the FIRe technologies. Through the PHD Plus App, more farmers will be dealing directly with food consumers, supplying them with local and seasonal food products. They may deliver this directly to homes, or through cloud kitchens, restaurants, and other institutional buyers. Cloud kitchens will be very busy, as they provide the diversity of menus that ordinary restaurants cannot provide. A stable relationship with consumers would prevent farmers and cloud kitchens from pricing their products way above production cost, and transparent price information will suggest the fair price. Real time feedback mechanisms will also allow consumers to rate suppliers, and suppliers to know market demand.
The groceries and wet markets that require bulk deliveries will still be around and will likely still depend on middlemen or consolidators for some items that farmers cannot directly supply. The groceries will be providing e-commerce-enabled services in addition to maintaining a physical store. It is likely that these e-commerce services will be performed by the farmers themselves, with the grocery simply acting as middlemen in the tradition of Amazon today. The ubiquitous wet market in its present form will likely survive all these changes as it services the last mile of food that is not easily serviced by other suppliers. It is most important in depressed communities.
Government and privately owned food terminals and farmers’ markets will provide the handling, storage, and trading facilities in strategic locations. Consolidators will source their supply from these facilities. Farmers will be empowered as consolidators bid for their products. They do not have to be pressured by the perishability of their produce as they are kept in cold storage facilities. This is the opposite of the current practice when consolidators go to the farms or boat landing sites and dictate the price they want to pay; in effect, farmers and fishers bid against each other while worrying that their product loses value every hour.
Packaging will undergo transformation in the next 30 years. Plastics will likely be used minimally. Reusable materials made of natural fiber will replace crates and plastic bags.
A circular food economy is not a choice but a necessity in Metro Manila
Every step in the food system generates waste. In a rice farm, this consists of straw. During marketing, packaging materials made of plastic and wasted food end up in the landfill. At the consumer level, they end up as sewage. These wastes have the potential to be converted into energy and useful materials such as fertilizer. Instead, they pollute Metro Manila’s soil, water, and air.
In our vision, reverse logistics and waste processing will enable efficient utilization of these wastes, but more importantly for farming, recover nutrients and send them back to the farms. Of critical importance is phosphorus, a nutrient needed by plants in large quantities. It is mined and mixed in commercial fertilizer, but its traditional sources are close to being depleted. With improved waste handling and extraction technology, more valuable materials that are in short supply can be recovered from waste. Eventually, waste processors will pay for the waste as its value as a resource is recognized.
We envision that efficient waste management leading to recovery of energy and materials will be done at the level of households, communities or residential buildings to complement the current centralized system. Technology under development, such as Bill Gates’ famous toilet, will make household level waste management happen.
Cleanup of Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay is continuing. The use of biodegradable food packaging will greatly simplify the job and, at the same time, create an additional industry that will offer new opportunities for farmers. Diversified and integrated farming and clean aquaculture technologies will reduce pollution by recycling nutrients
Rice straw, one of the main waste materials in the Philippine food system, has many uses. Yet farmers still burn them in spite of legal prohibitions. If the law cannot stop burning, economics will. In areas where onions and garlic follow rice, rice straw is sold for use as mulching material. This resource can also be used to feed livestock, or as mushroom substrate. If production of these products will be stimulated by increased demand, rice straw burning will stop, and rice straw will become a regular revenue source. An ongoing project is developing the technology for collecting methane gas produced by rotting straw. Another project aims to utilize rice straw directly as energy source by controlled combustion.
Rice hull and rice bran are by-products of rice milling. They are now being used in many ways and they bring additional income. Rice bran, specifically, is not only useful as livestock feed; it is a raw material for extraction of high-value health, nutrition and pharmaceutical products.
The economic benefits from converting biomass wastes into energy and value-added products partly justify continued local rice production even if imported rice is cheaper. With a good processing technology, they can substantially contribute to the local economy. Imported rice comes in the form of milled grain, thus the valuable waste and by-products are left in the country of origin.
For our Vision to work, food on the table must be universally understood as a product not only of farming but that of a system, a circular chain of human activity that has the greatest impact on human health and well-being, environment, and socio-economic condition. The system has many players, not the least important is the farmer. This simple truth is often forgotten in our industrialized food system. This was dramatically demonstrated recently when the Philippine government issued a lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving exemptions to food traders and retailers, but forgetting farmers in the initial phase of implementation. For a few weeks, farmers could not bring their produce to the market or buy seeds and fertilizers, or even visit their farms!
The consumer-led food system we envision depends on happy farmers to be sustainable. Whether in the vast fields of industrial agriculture, in the compact artisan farms, or in the sterile controlled environment facilities of the urban farm, the food system starts with the primary producers—the farmers. Happy farmers are those who earn enough from farming to support a decent standard of living, without the guilt associated with pollution and habitat destruction. Our Vision shows in great detail how farmers can be happier.
The system is also dependent on finite resources, which must be conserved both in quantity and quality to keep the system infinitely going. We have a growing scientific knowledge and tools that, if properly utilized, can allow us to remain hunger-free in 2050 and into the indefinite future. Ultimately, the limit is not land or water, but energy. Energy will allow us to grow food without land and little water. But energy is practically limitless. Our main energy source, the sun, is only utilized by humanity to a level less than 1% by some estimates. We are rapidly learning to use it more to produce cheap energy for innovative food production and distribution systems. There is no reason to worry about hunger in the future.
Hunger, to the layman in Metro Manila and elsewhere, is a poorly understood concept. Food is not only about keeping our stomach full. It should make us feel nourished and keep us healthy.
Recent scientific knowledge also tells us that our choice of food should also consider not only our body’s nutrition, but also the nutrition and safety of our constant companion—our gut microbiota. These microbes are so numerous that they outnumber the cells in our body. They are also highly diverse, consisting of many species that must be in the proper balance to provide us nutrition, make our immune system work, and keep us physically and mentally healthy. Too much sugar tilts the balance of their population in favor of harmful species. The beneficial species subsist on fiber, a nutrient found only in plants. Thus, a good eating rule is to avoid sugars and eat generous amounts of high-fiber food.
The PHD gives us the science-based guide on the proper balance of food components to keep our microbiota and us, the consumers, healthy. It could help save the environment and make the farmer happy. Its main element is diversity, and its main ingredient, plants. The PHD Plus App we envision provides a tool that consumers can use to make data- and value-driven choices.
If we find PHD too complicated, there is safety in traditional foods. These are the foods that nourished our ancestors, drawing from the rich biological diversity of our tropical environment. We should find comfort that our grandparents were likely unaffected by the industrial food system that progressively limited our food choice and gave us junk food.
Eating traditional foods gave our ancestors a good epigenome heritage over generations of trial and error. This epigenetic imprint handed down to us should last a few generations more. But we must make the food habit shift now, before the epigenetic heritage is corrupted by our dysfunctional food system, and before we lose the choice to make a change when we lose the traditional food ingredients. As a word of caution, we are fast losing these traditional foods by destructive farming practices and climate change among others. If we don't use them, we will surely lose them.
We have always looked elsewhere for solutions to our society’s many problems: the government, foreign aid, civil society, and the academe, among others. The solution is really on our plate. We stare on this solution three times every single day. If we do the simple act of changing the composition of our plate, we can solve not only our own hunger, but also help solve many of society’s problems. These include the most worrisome of all: poverty, inequality, and sickness. Indirectly, we can also help regenerate the city and the farms supplying it with food.
If we do our part as consumers, the rest of society will follow.