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Toward smarter agriculture

Years ago, I discovered that much of our agricultural statistics stands on flimsy ground. I was part of a government-appointed panel tasked with reviewing our country’s statistical system, whose recommendations eventually led to the establishment of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

In interviews with those responsible for local crop production data, we learned that the work to gather the quarterly data was funded out of budgets of specific commodity programs of the Department of Agriculture (DA) — a red flag for potential data bias. It was indeed admitted to us that there was “pressure” to show good performance in the crop from whose budget the data survey had been funded. But there was an even more disturbing revelation: In quarters when no commodity program would foot the bill for data gathering, they would simply “reenact” the previous quarter’s production figures. I can only trust that all that has changed, with the PSA now in place.

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Guess what: The capability to obtain accurate, real-time data on crop production nationwide is already with us—but it seems the DA has yet to embrace it. The last meeting of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines featured an interesting presentation on Project Sarai, for Smarter Approaches to Reinvigorate Agriculture as an Industry in the Philippines (www.sarai.ph). Spearheading the project is the School of Environmental Science and Management of the University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, with funding from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

With four other UP Los Baños colleges (Engineering and Agro-Industrial Technology, Arts and Sciences, Development Communication and Agriculture and Food Science), Sarai involves a growing consortium that includes UP Diliman’s Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology, 11 state universities and colleges (SUCs), some local government units (LGUs) and relevant national government agencies — an excellent showcase of institutional collaboration.

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Originally conceived as a strategy for climate-resilient agriculture, Sarai employs innovative tools to device crop forecasting protocols that generate sound and near real-time crop forecasts, and much more. The toolkit includes regularly updated satellite images, a network of soil moisture meters/sensors, pest identification via face recognition technology and various digital platforms, including easy-to-use smartphone apps.

Spidtech (Smarter Pest and Disease Identification Technology) lets farmers identify farm pests and determine appropriate controls; a beta version can be freely downloaded from Google Play Store. Using drones and satellite imagery, Sarai also permits more accurate assessment of crop damage due to calamities, and deliver site-specific crop advisories to farmers. For example, it can help farmers in certain areas forestall potentially large losses by guiding them, based on anticipated water deficits or surpluses, to plant alternative crops in place of their usual seasonal crops. Systematic capacity-building at various levels ensures that the information generated is widely accessed, appreciated, understood and applied.

Ironically, the DA, logically the most important government partner, had a lukewarm response to the project proponents’ early efforts to forge a partnership. Claiming they “were already doing it,” DA officials cited their National Color-Coded Agriculture Guide Map (Naccag). That Sarai is funded by the DOST also appeared to be a factor—a sad reality to contend with in an often overly turf-conscious bureaucracy. Imagine what a unified Sarai and Naccag could achieve, working with a network of SUCs and LGUs spanning the whole country. It would be data-driven agriculture at its best, helping maximize productivity and profitability at the farm level, accurately keep track of the sector’s performance and mitigate harm from climate change-related disasters.

There’s a happy postscript to the story: the DA, through its Regions 3 and 4B offices and the Agricultural Training Institute, is now on board. Here’s hoping the rest of the department recognizes its full value to what has so far been our most ill-performing economic sector.

[email protected]

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TAGS: agricultural data, Cielito F. Habito, commodity programs, crop production data, No Free Lunch, smart agriculture
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