Pitch for organic Philippine rice rises
Groups plan campaign to revive interest in, consumption of brown riceBy Germelina Lacorte
DAVAO CITY—Clemencio Resola revealed one of the best-kept secrets of the Magsaysay rice (MagRice), an unpolished organic grain planted and packaged by farmers in Magsaysay, Davao del Sur.
“Instead of harmful pesticides, we spray our rice stalks with milk and honey,” said Resola, 51, who learned the technology from the Don Bosco brothers when they first went into organic production of rice in 2005.
“Aside from repelling the bugs, the unique mixture also makes our rice give off that special aroma you can’t find anywhere else,” he said.
For seven years now, farmers belonging to Magsaysay Organic Farmers Cooperative (Mofarco) have planted and marketed MagRice, one of the organic produce showcased in the Davao leg of the brown rice campaign of Oxfam International’s “The Good Food Project” in Davao City.
Named after Magsaysay, the rice-producing town in Davao del Sur, MagRice created a stir when it first came out in the market. It was the first initiative of a local government unit to support organic rice production.
But while MagRice now sells at P41 a kilo, much higher than the average price of P35 of white polished rice, most of over 100 farmers who embraced organic farming at the start of the program in 2005 have reverted back to old farming methods using chemicals.
Slow cash flow
Resola, one of the remaining 22 farmers who have continued their organic farms, said the others were discouraged by the slow cash flow and marketing problems they encountered.
The “white rice” culture has been ingrained among Filipinos that it needs a shift in cultural orientation and habits to convince people to consume brown rice, said Neil Cabangon, vice president of the artist group Dakila. The group partnered with Oxfam in the campaign highlighting the health benefits of brown rice to encourage more people to shift to it.
“Brown rice has been around the country for a long time,” he said, “But owing to its looks, it has been largely ignored in favor of white rice.”
Brown rice simply refers to “unpolished” rice, considered whole grain, in contrast with rice normally sold in stores, which has undergone two major mechanical milling processes.
According to Cabangon, the milling process removes most of the nutrients in rice. After drying grains in the field, the first process would be removing the husk, exposing the rice kernel coated by bran. Unknown to most people, the bran layer that gives brown rice its brown appearance contains essential nutrients for the body, rich in phytic acid—an antioxidant with anticancer properties.
So-called because it retains the bran on its outer layer, brown rice has a high fiber content and is rich in vitamins, protein and minerals. It is known to prevent gastrointestinal diseases and is rich in thiamine—good for breast-feeding mothers—and is a good source of lysine, ideal for children’s growth.
Its low sugar content also makes it ideal for people with diabetes.
Cabangon said presenting the health benefits of brown rice would not only give consumers a healthier choice but would also help protect the environment by eventually stopping the unsustainable farming practice of using harmful chemicals in the soil.
Switching to brown rice will hopefully boost the market of small farmers like Resola.
Cabangon said his group would tour around major cities in the country this year, dropping by farming communities to drum up the health benefits of brown rice, spur demand in the market, and, hopefully, encourage more farmers to plant organic rice.
The price of brown rice is still high compared to polished white rice mainly because it has been marketed as “premium rice,” he said. But the actual cost of producing brown rice is lower than the cost of producing white rice because rice millers can do away with the polishing and repolishing of the grains, he added.
“This saves on labor, energy, maintenance cost and even milling time,” Cabangon said. “Although right now, there is a question of affordability, because of the way brown rice is being produced and packaged. Someday, when the demand for brown rice picks up and more organic farmers produce it, the price will hopefully become competitive so that more consumers can afford it,” he said.
He said incentives should be given to encourage small farmers to produce brown rice and avail themselves of post-harvest technologies, like milling machines dedicated to brown rice production, and access to packaging and storing facilities that would lengthen the shelf life of brown rice.
Aside from Dumaguete and Davao cities, Oxfam will visit farming communities in Cebu, Manila, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Baguio and Mindoro as part of its campaign tour to promote brown rice.
Judging from the number of whole grains and organic food now appearing on the shelves of supermarkets, Oxfam said that brown rice could be making a comeback as more people become aware of its health benefits.
MagRice, for instance, is already sold in mall outlets in the cities of Davao, Digos and General Santos.
“The yield (per hectare) may not be as high as those that are using chemicals, but you greatly reduce the cost of farm inputs so it comes a lot cheaper,” Resola said.
Right now, Mofarco has planted organic rice in over 40 hectares of farms in Barangays San Isidro, Kalamagoy, Kasuga, Bala and Albatana in Magsaysay town.
Cabangon said drumming up its health benefits would hopefully increase the demand for brown rice and benefit not only health and the environment but also farming communities that are shifting to organic agriculture production.
“What I want to point out is how we value it (the brown rice) more compared to the white rice,” he said. “Maybe, that’s what we need to impart to people, how we value the benefits we get from brown rice.”
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