Aiming for food security in the metro

Food security 'exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life'

This was written by Cai Ordinario as part of the requirements by the East West Center in Hawaii. She wrote it in May 2012 as a Spring 2012 Jefferson Fellow.

MANILA, Philippines – The volatility in the international prices of food commodities in 2008 exposed the vulnerability of net food importing countries such as the Philippines.

Prior to 2008, food imports such as rice were cheap, causing government bureaucrats to harbor the belief that it was more cost-efficient to import than to invest in propping up the production of essential food items.

When international food prices hit their peak in 2008, rice — the staple food of Filipinos — became much more expensive. The price of imported milled rice went up 3 times, from a low of about US$400 per metric ton sometime in late 2007 to $1,100 per ton by the time the Philippines entered the rice market and bought more than two million tons in 2008.

The 2008 food crisis served as a wake-up call for the Philippine government. It resulted in a paradigm shift — from massive importation in the early years of the Arroyo administration to “food self sufficiency” a year before the former president stepped down.

Probably seeing the merits of this “self sufficiency” policy, the Aquino administration adopted the same stance. The agriculture minister of President Benigno Aquino III even went so far as to declare that the Philippines will not just bat for “rice self sufficiency” but also “food security.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations said food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

In the context of this definition, urban areas in the Philippines (the biggest of which is Metro Manla) may be called food insecure. Metro Manila, in northern Philippines, is hostage to certain events that impact on food production in rural areas.

Communal gardens

To somehow improve the access of urban residents to farm products such as vegetables, the Department of Agriculture rolled out its Agri-Pinoy Urban Agriculture Program in the National Capital Region (NCR) in April. Under the program, communal gardens will be set up in 30 congressional districts in NCR between April 2012 and December 2013.

The gardens or techno demo farms will be situated in 500-square meter (sqm) lots or, in their absence, 200 sqm of container gardening areas. The use of the lots would depend on the landowner but he or she must forge a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the secretary of agriculture and the congressional district representative.

The regional office of the Department of Agriculture implements the urban gardening program in Metro Manila along with local government units (LGUs). They are supported by its attached agency, the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) which recommends vegetable varieties that can be planted in gardens, and conducts small-group training on urban farming and organic fertilizer production for the project.

The national government has set aside a budget of P15 million or $348,837.21 ($1=P43) to finance all the inputs needed to set up the techno demo farms. This includes funding for seeds, soil, containers, organic fertilizer, composting needs, and other logistical concerns, including project monitoring activities.

“If one has a small house, the government will assist the family in planting leafy vegetables in plastic soda bottles which can be cut in half. These plastic bottles can be lined up on the wall of the house. Apart from having food, the plants will also serve as decoration,” said agriculture secretary Proceso J. Alcala in Filipino.

The BPI said there are more than 20 vegetable varieties recommended for planting for the urban gardening project. These include common vegetables used in vegetable dishes like pinakbet and chopsuey; culinary herbs like leeks; salad vegetables like mustard; medicinal herbs like oregano and pringer, and indigenous vegetables, which are commonly grown in the Philippines.

Indigenous vegetables follow an acronym: MASK TALK PH. These are malunggay (moringa), alugbati (malabar night shade), saluyot (jute leaves), kulitis (amaranth), talinum (talinum triangulare), ampalayang ligaw (bitter gourd), labong (bamboo shoots), katuray (common sesban), pako (fern), and himbaba-o (birch flower).

Urban farms

Through the techno demo farms it has put up, the DA hopes local governments will follow its lead and encourage barangays, the smallest government unit in the Philippines, to adopt them in their communities and public schools.

In Novaliches in Quezon City, a techno demo farm was set up on a private lot owned by a barangay official. Currently, the farm in Novaliches also serves as a seedling bank for indigenous vegetables and other recommended vegetables. In that area alone, some 20 schools and several barangays have put up their own vegetable garden.

Most of these urban gardening projects in barangays and schools take up smaller spaces as they use mostly containers, including plastic soda bottles, plastic mineral water bottles, old tires, plastic pitchers, unused sacks, and rusted tin cans.


Local governments are allowed to sell the seedlings for about $2 to interested schools or barangay residents who would like to create urban gardens in their homes. In some barangays, the vegetables are sold at cost and the proceeds are used to sustain the farms. In others, the produce are used for community feeding programs, particularly for school children.

While it may not lift families out of poverty, the government said participants in the project could save and earn at the same time. Regional office staff member Maribel de Guia said a 10 meter by 90 centimeter plot, roughly the space between houses in some housing areas, could generate an income of P600 or $13.95 (at $1=P43). De Guia said this is if the entire area is devoted to mustard, a vegetable that is in demand in Metro Manila.

To convince more people to adopt vegetable gardening, the DA is also highlighting the health benefits of consuming fresh and organic produce. De Guia said while it is more convenient for residents to just spend P10 or $0.23 to buy some vegetables at the public market, they may not be getting what they pay for because these have already been robbed of their nutritional value.

Also, vegetables sold commercially may be laden with chemical fertilizers which could cause illness. Since the urban gardening program advocates natural farming methods, de Guia said no chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used to tend backyard farms. This guarantees the freshness and safety of home-grown vegetables.


While the intent is good, there are doubts over the sustainability and effectiveness of the project. This is not the first time that the Philippine government has embarked on a similar program. During the Martial Law years in the 1970s, former president Ferdinand Marcos launched his “Green Revolution” program that encouraged households to plant vegetables in their own garden.

Also, in the late 1990s former first lady Loi Ejercito-Estrada rolled out the Gulayan and Bulaklakan (Vegetable and Flower gardening) program. The Estrada administration took a step further by encouraging residents to grow poultry in their own backyard. The Arroyo administration, meanwhile, had the Gulayan sa Masa (Vegetable farming for the masses).

Despite all these programs, the consumption of vegetables among Filipinos has not improved. The latest government figure pegged the annual per capita consumption of vegetables at only 40 kilograms. State run Food and Nutrition Research Institute had recommended an annual per capita consumption of 69 kilos of vegetables.

Also, this project has not considered the vulnerability of Metro Manila to flooding. When Typhoon Ketsana hit the Philippines in September 2009, some areas in Metro Manila saw flood waters reach even the second floor of people’s homes.

This oversight is due possibly to the fact that the government has not updated its geohazard map for Metro Manila or the entire country, for that matter. The latest geohazard map was introduced in 1995, way before typhoon Ketsana submerged a number of cities in Metro Manila. While a new map is being crafted by the national government, this will not be ready until 2014.

Further, there are cities which are not receptive to the idea of urban gardening. A case in point is Makati City, the Philippines’ main business district. Given the city’s lack of space, it is difficult to find a suitable area to put up techno demo farms. Most of the residents in the main business district live in condominums that do not have gardens and enough space for containers. And since land values in Makati are high, landowners are not keen on lending their property to the government.

The existing political structure could also pose a threat to the project. Local government officials change hands every 3 years. No matter how practical or good a project may be, a new official will not be keen on pursuing it because of the belief that this would be good PR for his predecessor.

Local governments prefer projects that afford them visibility. These projects usually involve the construction of basketball courts and waiting sheds. Apart from being more visible, these types of projects require more funding. –

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