by Pamela G. Fernandez | 10 Jul 1994

Pamela G. Fernandez

Universities are a vital national resource in training, research and extension for agricultural development, North and South. Many of them, however, are geared toward reinforcing conventional, high-input chemical-based farming methods and a reductionist agenda of narrowly-defined productivity gains and technology transfer. Most of them are also becoming marginalised due to government budget cuts and the increasing role of the private sector. Despite the dominant culture, some institutions are susceptible to change and can be helped to change when advocates of pro-farmer, sustainable agriculture join forces. The University of the Philippines offers an example of this. Dr. Pam Fernandez and her colleagues at the Department of Agronomy in UP's Los Baños campus are struggling to make the University an active proponent of sustainable agriculture for resource-poor farmers of Southeast Asia. As Dr. Fernandez spells out for Seedling readers, this requires a small revolution in mentalities — a revolution that has to germinate at home.


Agricultural development programmes in the Philippines and in other Third World countries are still struggling to fulfill their promise of food security and improvement in the quality of life of their people. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. Farmers who comprise the majority are more marginalised or disadvantaged and the resource base is giving way. There is thus no choice but to seek alternative strategies if these development programmes are to be true to their mission.

The University of the Philippines, being looked up to for leadership in wo/manpower development, technology and educational approaches, can lead in carrying out alternative agricultural development strategies. It can start with the seed, the agent of change in many agricultural development programmes. A university seed programme to promote sustainable agriculture (SA) for sustainable development is thus a logical first step.

UPLB and sustainable agriculture

The University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) assumes an active leadership role in education, research and extension not only in the country but also in the ASEAN ( Southeast Asia) region. It serves as a wellspring of human resources development, science and technology in agriculture and related fields. It also plays a key role in national policy formulation, especially those that relate to agriculture and rural development. Since the University's mission is to serve the public in a way that is consistent with the legitimate aspirations and cultural traditions of Filipino and Asian societies, it must be vigilant to make sure that it is accountable to the majority of the people.

“Conventional” or “modern” agriculture has taken root in almost all formal institutions of learning in Asia, including UPLB. Realising the inadequacies of the conventional approach, UPLB declared a shift to sustainable agriculture during its college-wide mission review in 1989. Subsequently, a sustainable agriculture committee and task force were created to review the different academic functions at UPLB, identify structural constraints to transformation and propose mechanisms for new institutional linkages. The committees ' output provided a framework for conversion to sustainable agriculture, but more specific mechanisms for the various programmes within the University remain to be defined.

As we have learned in the past years here in the Philippines, any move toward sustainable agriculture by the University means explicitly recognising that small farmers are the University's primary partner in research, and that success in its development programme can be gauged only based on whether the lot of the farmers is truly improved. It should be measured ultimately in terms of farmer empowerment. Conversion to sustainable agriculture also means recognising that the “trickle down” effect — which has, in the past, been the justification for giving more attention to the richer farmers or commercial sector — will not work to serve the interest of the poor.

University scientists, educators, development workers and even administrators need to possess basic values and attitudes such as: being “pro-people” and “pro-nature”; demonstrating humility, respect for farmers and their sentiments, ideas and knowledge; and recognition that knowledge is not the sole reserve of experts and scientists. To uphold these qualities supposes that the “top-down”, “transfer of technology”, and reductionist approaches and thinking at the University are replaced by an entirely different paradigm (“bottom-up”, holistic and participatory) that allows farmers to participate from the planning stage up to implementation and benefit monitoring. It also implies a shift towards a highly interactive process in teaching, research and extension.

A pro-farmer university seed programme

The key role that the seed plays in agriculture makes a university seed programme a prime starting point to support and promote sustainable agriculture at the national or regional level. A university seed programme truly geared toward sustainable agriculture is one that employs alternative approaches in teaching, research, extension, production and other seed-related activities. The programme we — a team within UPLB's Agronomy Department — are developing aims to improve alternative or traditional seed supply systems while seeking to increase awareness about the unsustainable ways of conventional or modern seed supply systems. Its main goal is the empowerment of small farmers in their work with genetic resources over all.

- Seed instruction

Various courses on seed science and technology are offered by UPLB. Some are discipline oriented while others are more directed toward specific commodities. As with many courses at the University, the treatment of the subject matter is still highly technical and reductionist. For an “SA” approach, these courses should be more holistic and integrative, incorporating a wide range of issues from basic plant biology to real life problems like GATT and patenting life.

Effective teaching involves approaches that are dialogic, participative and activity-oriented. While reorientation of course content is necessary, changes in pedagogical approaches in seed courses are likewise needed. This means more innovative teaching techniques to encourage student participation in the curriculum development and execution, and greater interaction among students and with teachers. Teachers and students should interact with various sectors of the seed industry, especially the farmers. The “teacher-information- giver” and “student-learner” atmosphere must be done away with, since students can contribute highly valuable information, unique experiences and bright ideas that enrich the learning environment.

- Seed research

UPLB is a major source of new varieties and seed technology for Philippine agriculture. This work at the University has been mainly guided by mainstream approaches supporting conventional agriculture — to the benefit of the commercial seed and agrochemical industries. New directions in breeding and seed technology call for more participatory approaches involving various disciplines and working closely with farmers, regarding them as real partners in the development undertaking. This way, farmers can participate actively from the definition of the seed problem, to implementation and even benefit monitoring of the research output.

University-based breeding work has to shift fundamentally if it is to support and improve small scale farming systems. Emphasis should be put on open-pollinated varieties that farmers can reproduce rather than on non-reproducible hybrids, which normally require high levels of external inputs to perform well. Varietal development should also use complex, integrated farming systems as its starting point, rather than focus on monocrops and just the “grain” component of crop productivity. Further, the notion that scientists are the breeders and farmers are the mere users of new varieties has to be undone.

One initiative to encourage farmer participation and empowerment in the development of varieties and technology in which UPLB scientists are involved is the nation-wide MASIPAG programme (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Agricultural Development). The MASIPAG programme, launched in 1986, is a coalitional programme involving farmers, scientists and NGOs to collect, select and conserve traditional and modern farmer-bred rice seeds for alternative agriculture. To date, the farmers — supported by University professors — have made 121 crosses using 37 parental materials (traditional farmer selections and some improved materials). Some 55 new farmer selections and lines have been developed and currently are being tested in over 23 sites all over the country. Because farmers do the hybridisation (cross-breeding) and selection based on their own criteria and needs — such as low-external input requirements — the popularity of MASIPAG seeds has spread rapidly. The University should encourage such on-farm technology generation managed by farmers themselves, acknowledging that such a process has been operating ever since the beginning of agriculture and can help improve peoples ' livelihood and innovation systems.

- Genetic conservation

Genetic materials of agricultural crops are kept in the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory (NPGRL). The main objective of the programme is to collect germplasm of various crops, especially those that are undergoing rapid genetic erosion and to have these materials available for varietal improvement. Tremendous amounts of material have already been collected but their high maintenance costs and intensive management requirements may far outweigh the benefits derived from the genebank. While the importance of ex-situ conservation is recognised, the potential of on-site conservation managed by farmers cannot be disregarded. On-site conservation by farmers is an equally important approach to genetic conservation as those undertaken by scientists and bureaucrats. It is cheaper, more attuned to changing times, more adjustable, empowering, and allows conservation to remain integrated with utilisation on the farm.

The NPGRL could optimise its service by developing mechanisms to allow farmers to make use of the genetic resources in its collection for field testing, regeneration, community seedbanking, breeding, technology development and evaluating genetic materials. Farmers could also help in collection or retrieval of cultivars for the genebank. The NPGRL has already allowed some NGOs doing on-farm conservation to store backup collections of their seed samples in its cold storage facilities. The NPGRL should go a step further and help develop appropriate tools (such as descriptor lists) and methodologies with farmers and NGOs to strengthen community conservation of genetic resources.

- Seed extension and training

The extension model that has prevailed in many educational institutions is the “transfer-of-technology” where “products” from the university are handed over to the “clients” for their adoption and use. Such an approach has already met criticism in light of its ineffectiveness as a genuine development approach. The ultimate aim of extension should be to empower your “partners” to be innovative so that they can tap their own capabilities to act on their own problems. It is not for the extension worker to solve the problem for the farmer nor to make the farmer stop thinking about alternative solutions him or herself. The goal should not be to develop the people's agriculture but to teach them a process by which they can develop their own agriculture.

The University can promote an SA-seed extension programme in the form of advocacy, production of practical learning materials, direct assistance to farmers or development workers to their seed undertaking, putting up a seed learning facility and by trainings. To this end, a training methodology — supported by a highly interactive aid/manual on seed topics — has been evolved by UPLB's Seed Science and Technology Division. The module is flexible and varies from one training to another, but some basic elements include SA-seed production and post-production technologies and issues related to seed, agriculture and development. Inclusion of topics like community organising, community seed banking and social dimensions in development projects for development-oriented participants has been useful. Other issues like personality and value analysis, leadership skills and training facilitation are also essential. Since the core staff of the Division of Seed Science and Technology of the Department of Agronomy do not have the necessary expertise to handle non-technical topics, the help of other units of the University and NGOs is continuously being sought.

Through time, the Seed Science and Technology Division has accumulated substantial information from the NGO and farmer participants. For example, tribal Filipinos participants have greatly contributed to our database on indigenous seed practices. An added advantage of this exercise is that farmers finish the training course with a deep sense of fulfillment and confidence about what they already know or are already doing (if they are not yet deeply engaged in the conventional system), and a sense of confidence in their own capability to solve their own problems. The whole objective is to generate enthusiasm which is considered as the driving force behind development.

Fulfilling a mission

The shift from conventional to a pro-farmer, sustainable system of agriculture in the University is currently hindered by: the dearth of known SA options; the lack of confidence of some University constituents on the effectiveness of these alternatives given limited information on success stories; the current structure that lends more support to the richer farmers than to the poor; and by being bound to the existing organisational structure, policies and non-sustainable practices and approaches. This is further hindered by prevailing attitudes that knowledge is a monopoly of experts, scientists and university graduates.

To turn this around the University should invite farmers into its structure, perhaps through a Sustainable Agriculture Committee, to advise and guide programme development. The University should also take steps to ensure that its various policies, structures, programmes and outputs are consistent with the principles and thrust of alternative agriculture. For example, a policy should be developed to ensure that all Memoranda of Agreement — especially regarding research grants — are open for public scrutiny. This is to prevent the University from being dominated by industry at the expense of the farmers. Government policies that concern the vital interests of the farming community — like intellectual property rights on plants and animals — must also be actively evaluated by the University constituents drawing direct input from farmers themselves.

A restructuring of the reward system in the university work is equally in order. Mechanisms of recognition of innovative SA-related work should be established to encourage more staff to expand into alternatives. Such a recognition system does not necessarily involve new funds or programmes but rather a shift in current appropriations and programme thrusts. Assistance extended by university people to farmers ' groups or NGOs with limited resources should be institutionalised to ensure continued support to this sector. This would also serve as means to legitimise the activities of staff servicing these groups. Extension and training should be given a high priority in accomplishment rating, especially for researchers and teachers who are highly involved in development type research and extension activities. Scientists should not be judged solely by the volume of their research output and publications, especially in refereed journals, but also by the potential impact that they can facilitate at the village level using alternative approaches.

It is time that the University plays a more active role in promoting pro-farmer sustainable agriculture. In the end, the university can only say that it has fulfilled its mission if it has genuinely served the small farming community and maintained the resource base for the present and future generations. Only when the people's human and cultural rights are respected, their economic conditions improved, people are empowered to plan for their future, given access to the resources to improve their quality of life and to realise their aspirations could we say that the University succeeded in fulfilling its mission.


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Dr. Pamela Fernandez can be contacted at: University of the Philippines at Los Baños, College of Agriculture, Department of Agronomy, College, Laguna 4031, Philippines. Tel: (63-94) 2466 or 2468 or 2217. Fax: c/o SEARCA (63-2) 817.05.98. Email: [email protected]

Author: Pamela G. Fernandez