Author Archives: Roberto Verzola

Roberto Verzola is a social activist with an academic background in engineering and economics. He is the author of the book Towards a Political Economy of Information (2004) and Crossing Over: The Energy Transition to Renewable Electricity (2015). He is currently the National Coordinator of SRI Pilipinas (SRI stands for system of rice intensification) and President of the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies (CREST). His past involvements include the Philippine Greens, Tanggol Kalikasan (Defending Nature), Halalang Marangal (Network of Citizens for Honest Elections and Truthful Statistics), and the Bulletin Board. He can be reached at rverzola@gn.apc.org or at +63-917-811-7747.

Nutrition lessons from human evolution

This is my presentation for the July 21 session of the Diliman Book Club.

It recounts my ongoing research on nutrition and diet, to cope with a spine problem due to an abnormal growth. This research led me to review various theories of human evolution to learn what foods are best for H.sapiens. Click the following link to download the PDF file. (Diliman Book Club Presentation by Roberto Verzola 21 Jul 2018)

 

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Back online

My apologies for not having posted for months.

I was preoccupied with medical issues and still tried to keep a level of activity for my two major advocacies, the system of rice intensification (SRI) and renewable energy (RE)/sustainable technologies.

I will be posting more often from now on.

For a quick update:

I traveled to Dumaguete and Siquijor last week, to give lecturers both on SRI and on RE.

Before this, CREST had conducted two trainings in San Luis, one on solar and another on microhydro.

My draft of a paper on our Paris commitment to reduce GHG emissions 70% by 2030 — that this is doable in the electricity sector — is nearly done. I will share the draft here, so it can benefit from feedback before being finalized.

I have also drafted a critique of the DOE’s baseload bloat, in its Power Development Plan 2016-2040.

And there a third draft: the results of a simulation I did on solar energy deployment in the Philippines and how it will affect the share of baseload plants in the country’s energy mix.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the staff of Cong. Rav Rocamora on the CREST proposal for a brownout-free Siquijor through a SWITCHOFF campaign.

Today, CREST is doing consultations at the Bayleaf Hotel on the 5-unit RE syllabus we are crafting, an open-source document for academic institutions.

Lots to report about! More later…

Obet Verzola

 

 

World Energy Congress paper on lessons from the information economy for renewables in attaining economies of scale

This is the full text of the paper (in pdf) I presented at the 23rd World Energy Congress (WEC) held October 9-12, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.

It discusses 10 lessons from the IT industry in attaining economies of scale which may be applicable to renewables. The most important of these is the downsizing of their product from mainframe to micro.

Roberto Verzola

Renewables should shift from a mainframe to a micro paradigm

To reduce climate change risk in the next ten years, we need more than one technology. We need technology approaches and business models that can make carbon-free or carbon-neutral renewable energy as accessible and abundant as information has become today.

This means we need to learn from the approaches and models of the IT industry and how it managed to reduce the cost of information processing several orders of magnitude lower, from millions of dollars for a huge mainframe to a few dollars for a tiny single-board computer today.

This feat brought information processing devices to unprecedented levels of affordability and plenty. As the cost of information itself approached zero, new business models emerged that charged either per-month or per-gigabyte, gave it away for free, or their various combinations. With users also becoming potential suppliers of information or service, peer-to-peer became as important as client-server business models. Because of their low price and abundance, the IT industry’s microchips have become fundamental building blocks at the core of all modern devices, turning computers into deep game-changers—they changed the rules of the game not only within their industry but in every aspect of society too.

The IT industry attained this feat by downsizing from mainframes to microcomputers, shifting its focus from economies of scale in size to economies of scale in quantity. While building larger and more powerful computers attained the industry some economies of scale, these could not compare to the economies of scale attained by mass-producing millions of tiny computers year after year. This (and other approaches) enabled the industry to maintain virtuous cycles of continually decreasing prices and increasing production.

Lower prices typically discourage production: this is what conventional economic theory asserts. But lower prices also encourage demand. If greater demand enables producers to reach such economies of scale that their costs of production drop faster than the drop in prices, then they are encouraged to produce even more, leading to the virtuous cycles that we still see today in the information industries.

If renewables can parallel this process, then not only can the industry avert the looming disasters due to fossil-fuel burning, it may also bring about a new era of clean, cheap and abundant electricity which can become a long-term foundation for building modern sustainable societies.

The solar PV industry is also silicon-based, like the industries that produce the chips at the heart of every digital device. The photovoltaic cell has in fact shown the same virtuous cycle of decreasing prices and increasing production as the rest of the electronic chip industry. One might therefore think that they would have learned the lesson well.

Apparently not. The PV industry today is upsizing. The biggest solar panels are now 300 watts, from 100 watts several years ago. The PV industry seems focused on serving the growing market for solar farms, which started below one megawatt, but are in the hundred-megawatt range today.

The wind industry is afflicted with giantism, starting with kilowatt-sized turbines a few decades back, to 8-megawatt turbines today.

The hydro industry likewise continues to focus mainly on megadams and multi-megawatt facilities.

They all remain tied to the mainframe paradigm, trying to attain economies of scale in size. How far can upsizing go before reaching diminishing returns?

I suggest that the impact of renewables will be far greater if they go for economies of scale not in size but in quantity. If they manage to trigger virtuous cycles of decreasing prices and increasing production, microrenewables hold the potential of becoming another deep game-changer—like microcomputers—averting climate change risks and changing the rules beyond the energy game.

This idea has actually passed some close scrutiny. My 17-page paper on downsizing and other IT approaches (Roberto Verzola, “Virtuous Cycles of Expanding Production and Lower Costs in Renewables”, 23rd World Energy Congress, October 2016) went through the standard peer-review process, was accepted for presentation, and was well-received at the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, Turkey last October.

(This blog is my entry to the 2017 Masdar Engage Blogging Contest.)

Crossing Over (Second Edition) by Roberto Verzola

I’m glad to announce the release of the second edition of my book (Crossing Over: The Energy Transition to Renewable Electricity). As usual with all my works, the full text of the book is available online for free download. To download, just click on the book title above.

Changes have been occurring at breakneck speed in the renewables sector, requiring lots of updates and new material, more than a year after the first edition came out in March 2015.

Aside from the 2016 updates, the most important additions are:

  • My analysis of the Philippine Energy Program 2012-2030 of the previous Aquino administration, showing that it was already possible as early as 2012 to stop all new coal plant construction.
  • My contention that the best way for the renewables sector to attain economies of scale is to follow the IT industry’s approach of downsizing computers from mainframes to micro, and going after economies of scale in quantity instead of size.
  • A much-improved description of net metering and the Philippine utilities’ illegal implementation of this important provision of the Renewable Energy Act.

Merry Christmas to all!

Roberto Verzola 12/22/2016

SRI Pilipinas on the basics of the System of Rice Intensification:

This presentation by SRI Pilipinas provides the basic concepts behind the successful System of Rice Intensification (SRI). It explains the “secret” of SRI: it is learning how the grow more tillers. Under SRI, farmers can consistently grow rice plants averaging 25, 35, 50 and even more productive tillers each. This is how SRI’s dramatic yields are attained.

If you want help in conducting SRI trials in your area, please contact: Roberto Verzola, National Coordinator, SRI Pilipinas, rverzola@gn.apc.org, 0917-811-7747.

The Energy Road Not Taken: How the Philippine Energy Plan can lead to a coal-free future within a few years

This piece is a briefing paper for incoming officials who will be elected during the May 9, 2016 elections who will be appointed subsequently.

Its message is basic: the government expects demand for electricity for the period 2012-2030 to grow by around 4.25% (to 23,158 MW by 2030). The details are in the government’s Philippine Energy Plan 2012-2030. PEP 2012 also includes a Philippine Energy Efficiency Project (PEEP) which targets a 200-MW savings in electricity demand annually, bringing down the growth rate in demand to around 3.28% (19,558 MW by 2030). To keep the grid reliable, required reserves must also be added according to a government formula, making the required supply roughly 11-16% above the projected demand (21,634 MW by 2030).

The government has a National Renewable Energy Program (NREP), which targets some 9,525 MW of capacity to be installed in the planning period 2012-2030.

Our remarkable finding is that if we take the existing and committed supply as given (16,244 MW as of 2011), the NREP renewable-only targets are more than enough to provide the required supply up to 2030.

Thus, there is no need to build any new coal or other fossil-fueled power plants in the future.

For the details, please download the briefing paper.

Roberto Verzola

 

Philippine pseudo-net-metering scheme double-charges customers

This is the paper I submitted to the Energy Policy and Development Program (EPDP) Conference 2016, which will be held January 12-13, 2016 in Manila.

I present in the paper what I believe are iron-clad arguments that the so-called “net-metering” being implemented today by Philippine electric utilities violates the Renewable Energy Act of 2008 and results in the double-charging of net-metered utility customers.

The full text of the paper may be downloaded here (Philippine pseudo-net-metering results in the double-charging of customers by RVerzola).

Roberto Verzola

Can micropower become as deep a game-changer as microprocessing?

This is the title of the speech I’m giving Jan. 8, 2016 at the annual meeting of the Geosciences and Reservoir Engineering Group of the Energy Development Corp. The title says it all.

Developments in the renewable energy field indicate that we are entering a period very much like the early period of microprocessing. The technologies are almost there but not quite. Lots of innovation is going on. Prices keep dropping yet production keeps rising, contrary to what conventional economics predicts. This was exactly what happened when integrated circuits were first introduced, which later led to the earliest microprocessors and solid-state memories. It was a matter of time, before the first microcomputer was designed and built with these new components. The rest, as they say, is history.

In this speech, I explore the possibility that micropower, or small-scale generation, also called distributed generation, can be as deep a game-changer as microprocessors. By deep, I mean changing the rules of the game not only within the industry, but in society as well.

My conclusion: To become a deep game-changer, the energy industry must find a way to scale down, not up, the power units in energy systems, enough to activate the economics of increasing returns to scale and trigger virtuous cycles of greater demand and lower prices.

The full text of the speech may be downloaded here (Can micropower be as deep a game-changer as microprocessing by RVerzola).

 

Southeast Asia Conference on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Alor Setar, Malaysia

The Southeast Asia Conference on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) will be held May 26-28 in Alor Setar, Malaysia.

Four participants from the Philippines are going: Dr. Carmelita Cervantes of the Central Bicol State University for Agriculture (Pili, Camarines Norte) and SRI Pilipinas coordinator for Bicol, retired director Adelberto Baniqued of the Department of Agrarian Reform Region 9, now SRI Pilipinas coordinator for Western Mindanao, Lala Pablo of the Rice Watch Action Network (RWAN), and myself, as SRI Pilipinas national coordinator.

The full text of the paper I will be presenting, narrating the SRI Pilipinas experience in promoting SRI in the Philippines, can be downloaded here. (RSV SRI paper Malaysia May 2015 final.)

The Switch Off #NoBrownout Luzon Power Situation, updated hourly

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Luzon Power Situation, updated hourly

How Metro Manila can avoid brownouts this summer

How we can avoid brownouts
this summer without spending P450 million

by Roberto Verzola

[The author will launch his book Crossing Over: The Energy Transition to Renewable Electricity this March 23, 2015, 9 a.m., at The Patio of the UP Hotel, at the University of the Philippines, Diliman Campus. The book was published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung of Germany. The author may be reached at 0939-117-8999 or rverzola@gn.apc.org. See rverzola.wordpress.com for details.]
The government is preparing for a 2015 power crisis. This crisis, according to the testimony of Department of Energy Assistant Director Irma Exconde before Congress last October 2014, is basically a 31-megawatt shortfall in supply for around two critical weeks in April.

The government’s solution is the Interruptible Load Program (ILP), which will subsidize the expenses of large companies who have their own generators, if these have to be run due to impending brownouts. The estimated cost of the ILP program: around P450 million, charged to electricity consumers. (See Jess Diaz, “ILP to cost power consumers P450 M,” Philippine Star, Nov. 21, 2014.)1

March is now ending. Early mornings are still cool, but warming. The truly hot summer can start anytime soon. We probably still have a week or so before the crisis begins to be felt.

Here is a simple way to prevent brownouts from occurring in Metro Manila. Other electric utilities and cooperatives can use the approach too, if at least one TV station covers their service area.

Imagine a screen that shows the available electricity supply in megawatts (MW) as a horizontal line near the top of the screen. Imagine the actual demand, also in MW, tracing another graph on the same screen─in realtime─from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The 24-hour load curve of Meralco in shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Meralco’s 24-hour load curve
meralco load curve
This is not difficult to do. I have seen such displays in the offices of suppliers of electricity. I am sure the Department of Energy can produce such a display.

Now, imagine the trace of the actual demand inching up, as we rise in the morning, turn on some appliances and do our chores. Later in the morning, the graph rises faster, as the people arrive in their offices, turn on the lights, the airconditioning, and their computers, and as factories and workplaces start up machines and other electrical equipment. As the sun rises higher in the sky, more aircons and electric fans are turned on; aircons work harder.

The demand curve is now approaching the horizontal supply curve. The drama is building up.

Now, imagine television stations broadcasting the same screen, and the Secretary of Energy─or the President himself─explaining on TV that each individual can do something to prevent a brownout. They only need to turn off some of their less important electrical loads: lights in unused rooms, along corridors; one of three electric fans, postponing ironing to off-peak hours, and so on. Some will surely respond, especially if a prior media build up had been orchestrated earlier. One million responses─each turning off a 40-watt or so load (one fluorescent or incandescent lamp, one electric fan, or one computer)─is more than enough to cover the 31-MW shortfall.

As the responses come in, the demand curve takes a noticeably less steep path, but it keeps approaching the supply line. The tension is becoming almost unbearable. On radio and TV, the Secretary sends out another desperate appeal. Seeing that their actions did have some effect on the curve, people will respond some more, and urge others to act too. A critical mass of people now realize that it is better turn off some appliances on your own, than lose all power. Text messages fly, urging participation.

Watching the demand curve now feels like watching, live on TV, a typhoon that is about to hit. but it is also swerving, thanks to people’s earlier responses. Thus, more will be encouraged to join in, or to do more. It becomes a challenge, a race against time, or─if you will─a game: do we win or do we lose?

If we win, one can surely imagine a collective cheer in every home and office watching the screen, as if Pacquiao had just scored a knockdown. But this time, it is everyone’s victory.

If we lose, a brownout happens somewhere in the grid, as the system sheds some load to avoid overheating the generating plants. One can imagine hearing a collective sigh throughout the island. But with some loads shed off, the demand will drop below the supply line again; we are back in the game!

Imagine doing this everyday over a two-week period, as we collectively struggle to spare the country from brownouts by pressing one switch and then another, as if we were playing an online game. It will be the greatest drama of the summer break.

With a more sophisticated display, we can make the “game” more interesting (though this is not absolutely necessary).

We can split the grid into four sectors, and split the screen into four too, each quarter of the screen showing the demand curve and supply line for each sector. Only those sectors that fail to turn off enough loads get the brownouts. Now it becomes a contest between sectors too. But everyone can win, if they can, collectively as a sector, manage to swerve away from the supply line without hitting it.

There is no way this won’t work! This can become our national game every summer.

By the way, this approach is called demand-side management (DSM). The secret here is instant feedback. People can see right away the results of their collective act. If you can see that what you are doing matters, you are bound to do more of it.

Remember: all this needs is for the Department of Energy to set up the screen and the media to broadcast it. The public will do the rest. We will because we do not want to be billed that P450 million .
March 23, 2015

Net energy metering opens the floodgates to solar rooftops and other small-scale renewables

A very effective way of quickly deploying solar photovoltaic (PV) systems is the scheme called net metering, also called net energy metering.

This scheme is now in place in 44 U.S. states, opening the floodgates to rapid solar PV deployment in the U.S. What is being called a “net metering war” is now raging in the U.S., with utilities trying to roll-back net metering, especially its pricing model called parity pricing, which credits solar rooftop owners the full retail price for any surplus they export to the grid.

In some U.S. states, the utilities are succeeding. Here in the Philippines, the utilities won the war even before a single shot was fired, by drafting themselves the “net-metering” rules in the country.

For a review of the net metering debate, and the arguments which show that the utilities position actually leads to the double-charging of their net-metered customers, please download my piece “Net metering opens the floodgates to solar rooftops and other renewables.

Roberto Verzola

Splitting the gain from trade is a value-laden act

In this highly condensed piece of a longer article I’m working on, I analyze a single market transaction between a buyer and a seller.

I point out that the difference between the buyer’s reservation price (or willingness to buy) and the seller’s cost is  the potential gain from trade if this particular transaction is concluded.

For the transaction to actually happen, the buyer and the seller must agree how to split the gain from trade. If they don’t agree, the transaction is aborted, and both sides lose the potential gain from trade.

The problem of how the gain from trade should be split between the two sides is a matter  that involves values about sharing, fairness and justice. It is an inherently ideological act.

I analyze the various ways that this problem is resolved, from various perspectives: neoclassical price theory, game theory as applied to bargaining, social philosophies of justice, and commonly-accepted values of existing societies.

And I show that considerations of fairness almost always figure in the resolution of the problem.

I will also post the longer article, when I’m done with it.

I will appreciate any comments.

Roberto Verzola

Crossing Over: Making the Energy Transition from Fossil Fuels to Renewable Electricity

I have just finished a book entitled Crossing Over: The Energy Transition to Renewable Electricity, published this year 2015 by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

As with my other works, I’m making the file of this book available on this blog so that anyone may download it for free, and share it with others.

Many of the book’s contents are specific to the Philippines, where rooftop solar electricity became cheaper than grid-delivered coal-based electricity sometime in 2013. However, a number of insights are useful to other countries.

In particular, I present in the book a strong argument for net metering. I explain why another approach, usually called net billing, which pays grid-connected solar rooftop owner only the generation charge (roughly one-half of the retail price), is actually double-charging.

Please let me know if you found anything useful in the book.

Roberto Verzola

Author

Mandatory labelling of chemically-grown/processed products will bring low-cost organic food

UPDATE: I raised this proposal once more at the 13th National Organic Agriculture Congress, citing my 10th NOAC resolution. Again, the proposal was greeted with resounding applause from the audience. But we must learn from the inaction on the resolution at the 10th NOAC. I propose that for the 14th NOAC in Cagayan de Oro, regional/provincial/sectoral delegations who support this idea draw up a similar resolution. The resolution can cite my 10th NOAC resolution and the 13th NOAC plenary intervention (which was not in the form of a formal resolution) and include a proposal that the National Organic Agriculture Board (NOAB) form and fund a Technical Working Group to move the concept forward. These resolutions can then be submitted at the 14th NOAC, for immediate action.

PROPOSED RESOLUTION ON FOOD LABELLING AT THE 10TH PHILIPPINE ORGANIC AGRICULTURE CONGRESS

RESOLVED, THAT the organic movement pursue as a long-term goal the reorientation of the country’s food labellling laws to base these on the “polluter pays” principle, whi ch says that the consequences of pollution must be paid by the polluters, not by their victims. This means that the burden of testing, inspection, certification and labelling should be borne not by the organic producers who are the victims of agrochemical pollution, but by the chemical producers who pollute our food, our farms, and the environment. Specifically, this means that mandatory labelling should be imposed not on organic products but on chemically-grown/processed products. This approach will completely reverse the economics of food production, because the cost of testing, inspection, certification and labelling will now be borne by chemically-produced, rather than organically-grown food. This will soon drive higher-cost chemically-grown food out of the market.

Some may dismiss this idea as an impossible dream. After all, no country today requires the mandatory labelling of chemically-grown/processed products. Indeed, if we don’t act on dreams, they will never happen. We need to act on our dreams now, so that they will become reality in the future. [No country had banned incinerators before, but we dared to dream that it can happen, and we made the incinerator ban part of our laws. We can do the same thing with the mandatory labelling of chemically-grown/processed products.]

To move this dream closer to reality, this resolution also proposes an intermediate step, to set a precedent that will pave the way to our long-term goal of mandatory labelling of chemically-grown/processed products. This intermediate step is the mandatory labelling of genetically-modified products, which is already the norm in many countries of the world except those which are heavily influenced by the U.S., like the Philippines. A successful lobby for the mandatory labelling of genetically-modified products will set a compelling precedent for the next step: that chemically-grown foods, for precisely the same reasons, should also fall under mandatory labellling.

Then, we will have achieved a more favorable economic context which spares the organic producer from the costs and aggravations of a complicated mandatory labelling regime and consequently makes available for low-income consumers affordable and healthy organic food.

Resolution author:

Roberto Verzola

Coordinator, SRI Pilipinas

October 18, 2013

(Note: This copy contains minor improvements over my original hastily hand-written resolution I read during the Oct. 18 plenary session into the records of the 10th NOAC. It is my impression is that the plenary body accepted the resolution by acclamation. — Obet Verzola)

Napoles pork barrel scam: We’ve impeached a president and a chief justice; it’s time to impeach legislator-crooks

We have already impeached a president and a chief justice for graft and corruption. This has left an unforgettable mark in our history and the public’s mind. Today, no president or chief justice can violate our laws or constitution and still feel completely secure in their post. The precedents have been set.

It is clear from the ten billion-peso Napoles port barrel scam that certain legislators in Congress have perpetrated graft and corruption of the worst kind. Napoles had no power to do these things by herself. The masterminds of the scam are obviously powerful senators and congressmen who decide where and how their pork barrel funds will be spent.

The successful million people’s march will surely set off a debate about what concrete actions the movement should demand from the government. Some suggest the abolition of all pork barrel, others want to shift focus on the presidential pork barrel. The different suggestions all have their good supporting arguments.

Among all the various options, the impeachment of selected legislators holds special significance. Such impeachment will complete the expression of the power of the people to unseat corrupt public officials. The two previous impeachments had successfully unseated the chief executive, and the chief justice. If the impeachment of high-ranking legislators also succeeds, people power will have expressed its effectiveness over the three branches of government. It will be a victory of historic proportions.

This is the perfect time to teach all legislators a lesson. The public must insist that the worst of the corrupt legislators – who can surely be identified after an honest-to-goodness investigation of the scam – be impeached, as the first step in the criminal prosecution of the guilty. It is time to impeach the most corrupt of our legislators.

Impeaching some senators and congressmen may not discourage all public officials from stealing public funds, but it will leave a permanent mark in every politician’s psyche. Whether they are in the executive, judicial or legislative departments, they will realize that they are within reach of impeachment proceedings if public wrath against their corrupt practices reaches the boiling point.

A successful impeachment process need not stop there. Once the top crooks among senators and congressmen have been identified, criminal prosecution and subsequent jail terms can follow, if the movement manages to maintain its momentum. Pressure can then be exerted on both the executive and legislative branches to truly abolish the pork barrel system of personal allotments outside the collective budgeting process. The momentum can even carry over to other legislation essential for anti-graft and corruption campaings, like a Freedom of Information Act

At this historical juncture, the demand of the moment is to impeach legislator-crooks.

SRI success on first try: how a “weekend farmer” in Laur, Nueva Ecija got a 338-cavan/hectare rice yield

The results of a 2013 “backyard experiment” in a new rice-growing method by “weekend farmer” and physician Dr. Apolinar Tolentino Jr. has astounded his friends and colleagues.

From the control plot of 540 square meters using conventional methods, he got 12 cavans, or 220 cavans/hectare – quite high by Philippine standards. But from the experimental plot of 1,035 square meters using a new method called system of rice intensification (SRI), which he was trying for the very first time, he got 35 cavans, or 338 cavans/hectares – 54% higher than his control plot and more than four times the national average!

Successful physician, frustrated weekend farmer

Dr. Tolentino, whose specialty is family medicine, has been a medical officer of a government corporation for more than 20 years. He is married to another doctor, who enjoys a successful medical practice as pediatrician. Their children study in the best schools in the country.

Despite these marks of success, “Doc Joey” remains engaged in a search to improve income – his farm income, that is. In addition to his successful career as a physician, Doc Joey is also a “weekend farmer,” as he calls himself. He farms, he says, not only for himself and his family, but for all farmers in the country. If he can make his farm operation viable while keeping to “natural methods of farming”, then his approach might serve as a model for other farmers.

On weekends and some weekdays, Doc Joey’s son Percival Jerome (“PJ”) drives him from Quezon City to the six-hectare family farm in Laur, Nueva Ecija that his deceased mother and five other aunts and uncles inherited from their parents. Doc Joey took on the responsibility of managing the rice farm, with son PJ on his side, to try out various ideas that can make rice farming a viable operation.

In between his visits, his paternal cousin Benny Tolentino takes over and implements his “remote” instructions. Eventually, they managed to raise the farm’s yield from 60-80 to 100-120 cavans/hectare. The national average is only slightly below 80 cavans/hectare. Still, he was far from satisfied with the yields they were getting and the costs they were incurring. The margins were frustratingly low, he says.

“I won’t even factor in the cost of driving from Quezon City to Laur and back, or the time I spend managing the farm and travelling,” he adds.

A viable option emerges

Doc Joey’s search for viable farm options led him to the system of rice intensification (SRI).

SRI is a method of growing rice developed in the 1980s by Fr. Henri de Laulanié, a Jesuit priest stationed in Madagascar, a big island off the African east coast.

SRI went viral in the 2000s when Dr. Norman Uphoff, a Cornell University scientist studying irrigation systems, came across it, picked up the torch from de Laulanié, and started promoting SRI evaluations worldwide.

Before he did so, however, Uphoff spent years quietly evaluating the method. “For a long time,” Uphoff told a Filipino audience when he visited the country in 2002, “I couldn’t even mention SRI in my public talks, lest I associate Cornell’s name with what might turn out to be a false claim.”

But after three years of joint evaluations and demonstrations with Association Tefy Saina, the non-government organization which de Laulanié organized with local colleagues and left behind (he died in 1995), Uphoff was convinced that SRI benefits were real. He saw how smallholding farmers raised their yields from 2 to 8 tons/hectare just by changing the way they took care of their rice fields.

Having taught rural development for more than 30 years at Cornell, which hosts hundreds of foreign students a year in its agriculture program, Uphoff had a worldwide network of former students to tap. Also, Cornell received a steady stream of visitors engaged in agricultural and rural development. As director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) from 1990 to 2005, he travelled abroad regularly and had the opportunity to visit many countries.

Doing so, he started a campaign of encouraging everyone he met, including his former students of course, to “evaluate SRI scientifically.” SRI’s critics characterized Uphoff’s efforts as “missionary zeal” to question his credibility. “He has become an SRI advocate,” they charged. But Uphoff responded that what he was advocating was “the evaluation of SRI within the scientific community.” If scientists and farmers were satisfied with the results, they could decide themselves what to do with their new knowledge.

The establishment strikes back

Uphoff’s detractors, some of them based at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), went so far as to label his reports on SRI as based on “unconfirmed field observations (UFOs)” in articles published in scientific journals – an ultimate insult to a scientist. Some wrote that the SRI results reported by Uphoff exceeded what they calculated to be the theoretical maximums based on their agronomic models, implying that the top yields with SRI methods must be false. “Perhaps it is their current theories that need revision,” Uphoff suggests. “By focusing on the top yields, they diverted attention from the large increases in average yield achieved with SRI management – increases which were well within any concept of ‘biological maximum yield’,” he adds.

This early, highly-publicized opposition to SRI by IRRI scientists could be a major reason for SRI’s relatively slow spread in the Philippines, where IRRI is based. Local agriculture experts and government agriculturists look up to IRRI and they echoed these early criticisms of IRRI scientists, though much of these criticisms later turned out to be unfounded.

Many of these early critics are now silent, but they’ve never published any retraction of their unfounded criticisms, nor apologies for their insulting labels. Even today, some government agriculturists, especially those who are not updated about recent research, still cite arguments echoing these early critics.

To review the state of SRI research in the Philippines and other countries, the Central Bicol State University for Agriculture (CBSUA) is hosting an SRI research roundtable and lecture series on June 4, 2013 at the CBSUA campus in Pili, Camarines Sur. With Dr. Lucy Fisher, CIIFAD staff and a colleague of Uphoff, as guest speaker, the occasion will provide SRI researchers from CBSUA, UP Los Banos, Central Luzon State University, Visayas State University and other schools the opportunity to share and discuss their results.

Doc Joey picked up bits and pieces of the SRI debates, as he browsed the Web and explored YouTube for information, reading all he could about SRI. But he was really after knowledge he could use in his farm.

Eventually he came across SRI Pilipinas, the local network that promotes SRI in the Philippines. This network of SRI trainers conducts free trainings and seminars to farmers’ groups and provides free text/SMS lessons as well as primers to individual farmers. It is launching a “friendly contest” in 2013 and 2014 among SRI adopters to see who can get the most benefits from these methods. Doc Joey attended one of its seminars.

Case for SRI now overwhelming

By this time, as Doc Joey realized at the seminar, the case for SRI has become overwhelming.

For one thing, it has been tried successfully in more than 50 countries. (SRI’s phenomenal spread – often without support from government or agriculture authorities – has so confounded the agriculture establishment that the Gates Foundation funded Wageningen University researchers to study SRI as a “socio-technical” phenomenon.)

In November 2011, five farmers in Bihar, India – all using SRI which they had learned three years earlier – had matched or exceeded the world record for palay (paddy rice) yield of scientist and hybrid rice developer Dr. Yuan Long-ping of China. The best of the five SRI farmers, Sumant Kumar, now holds the new world record: 20.03 tons/hectare (22.4 tons – 448 cavans – before drying). The average yield in the Philippines is less than 4 tons/hectare (80 cavans).

Then, in August 2012, Dr. Yang Saing Koma of Cambodia received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, in large part because he convinced the Cambodian government to adopt SRI as an official program nationwide and helped it implement the program. As a result, Cambodia doubled its national rice production within eight years, from 3.82 million tons in 2002 to 7.97 million tons in 2010. Earlier, the Philippines had announced that they had signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cambodian government to import rice from Cambodia in the next two years.

Several Indian states have, for years, promoted SRI as part of the official government rice program, accounting for significant increases in their rice production. In the Nalanda district of the state of Bihar, where Sumant Kumar made his record-breaking harvest in 2011, 90% of farmers already use SRI. When India’s 2012 rice export statistics came in, they showed India’s rice exports jumping to 10.3 million tons, up from 4.8 million tons in 2011, thanks in part to this early focus on SRI. This doubling of exports has made India top rice exporter for 2012, ahead of Vietnam (7.7 million tons) and traditional leader Thailand (7.0 million tons).

Trying SRI for the first time

In the first cropping season of 2013, Doc Joey made up his mind to try SRI.

On his request, SRI Pilipinas assigned its Nueva Ecija-based trainer and Luzon coordinator, Venancio Garde Jr. of Gabaldon, to help him out. The two were distant relatives, it turned out.

With Jun Garde’s help, Doc Joey started his first SRI trial during the 2013 dry season, on a 45-meter x 23-meter plot. His Facebook entry called the 1,035 square-meter trial “a backyard experiment with lots of limitations.” A modest description of an experiment whose objective was “just to give my farmer-cousin a hands-on training in SRI and to find out if the technique will work in our rice farm.” He would have been satisfied with “anything above 150 cavans/hectare,” – roughly double the national average.

For seed, Doc Joey used a high-yielding Indonesian inbred rice variety he got from a trophobiotic practitioner he met in Facebook.

In his desire to convert his entire six-hectares into an organic rice farm quickly, Doc Joey stopped chemical applications immediately and applied the following on his six-hectare farm, including the 1,035-sqm plot where he was testing SRI for the first time:

Organic input Details
Green manure 20 kg/ha munggo (mung beans) broadcast before land preparation, then harrowed at the flowering stage
Vermicast 5 bags/ha on last harrowing and an additional 2 bags as top dressing for the SRI plot only
Chicken manure 15 bags/ha
Goat manure Unknown amount, “I just gave instructions to dump all goat manure on the SRI plot during land preparation.”
Indigenous micro-organisms 2 (IMO-2) Sprayed on the field after the first harrowing, at a rate of 30ml / 16L sprayer and 5 sprayers/ha to speed up decomposition
Vermi-tea 6 kg of vermi-cast in 100ml water with 3 kg molasses, brewed for 48 hours and used to dilute the NF concoctions (see below)
Natural Farming (NF) concoctions IMO, Fish/Kuhol Amino Acid with seaweeds, Fermented Plant Juice, Fermented Fruit Juice, Oriental Herbal Nutriet, Calphos, calcium from eggshell, and Lactic Acid Bacteria Serum
Vermi-tea with NF Sprayed every week starting 7 days after transplanting

After listing them all, Doc Joey himself expresses amazement at the amount of organic inputs they put in.

They transplanted the seedlings with care when they were just 10 days old, putting one seedling per hill, and observing the recommended distance of 25 x 25 cm. The fields were alternately flooded and dried, to encourage profuse and deep root growth. Finally, Doc Joey bought two rotary weeders from a Gabaldon specialty shop for the mandatory shallow cultivation every 7-10 days, required by SRI to aerate the soil and control weeds.

No chemical inputs were used at all.

In a separate 27-meter x 20-meter control plot, Doc Joey planted the same variety, using the conventional methods of growing rice: broadcasting directly into the field and fertilizing with a mix of organic and chemical inputs.

Korean Natural Farming, Filipino-style

Under the supervision of Doc Joey and with Jun’s advice, resident farmer Benny Tolentino and his wife Teodora also learned to make compost and various “concoctions,” as they are known in organic circles.

The concoctions are fermented mixes made from commonly available materials, which can hasten composting, enhance growth, add more nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, or calcium, and generally provide the same things that chemical treatments provide, but in an organic way. This system of making concoctions is separately known as the “Korean Natural Farming System” (KNFS), because it was developed by scientist Dr. Han Kyu Cho of Korea. Although not part of SRI, KNFS complements it perfectly and is taught together with SRI by SRI Pilipinas in its seminars and trainings. Doc Joey calls the system “NF,” for “Natural Farming”.

While doing all these things, Doc Joey shared every step of the way, as the trial went along, with his online friends, all natural farming enthusiasts.

He also shared tidbits of information gathered from the local SRI network that were useful to farmers. For instance:

On attacks by the Golden Kuhol (a common criticism of the SRI method): “in our experience using SRI, kuhol was not a problem despite wide infestation in our area [because we plant] the seedling in mud instead of submerging it in water, [and they] cannot move well in mud; the spacing is so wide [that the] kuhol senses that it is not worth their effort to go for a very small plantlet and have to travel wide to get to the next; we collect kuhol including the eggs to make it into fertilizer.”

To control rats: some SRI farmers roast raw rice [and] then mix it with some cement, using plastic gloves to prevent human smell from giving the mixture away. The fragrant aroma of roasted rice attracts the rats. The powdery cement quickly turns solid in the rats’ gut, leading to their death.

Doc Joey’s online friend Eddie Canuto, also an SRI adopter, shares another technique: wearing plastic gloves as usual, get some “is-is” leaves (“takinis” in Ilonggo, often used in scouring pots or as native sandpaper; scientific name, Leucosyke capitellata). Put some sardine sauce on them and leave them where rats tend to go. When the rats lick the sauce, the “hair” of the is-is will stick like needles to their tongue, impairing their eating ability and eventually killing them.

Thus, vicariously, Doc Joey’s online friends shared the excitement, the challenges, the joys and disappointments of growing rice with their fellow natural farming practitioner.

Success on first try

The SRI result astounded everyone – 338 cavans/hectare, more than four times the national average, using no hybrid seeds or chemical inputs, and on Doc Joey’s first try at SRI and first season of organic conversion at that!

Encouraged, he will now be trying SRI in the coming planting season on a half-hectare rice field, to make sure that SRI will also work on a larger scale. If he succeeds, he says, he will try SRI again in a full hectare. “If the results are still convincing, then SRI will be my sole method of rice planting in the six-hectare farm.”

“The real significance of Doc Joey’s feat,” Dr. Mely Cervantes, researcher and head of extension services of CBSUA explains, “is that it shows how farmers can improve their yields quickly, without using expensive hybrid varieties which they can use only once or similarly expensive chemical inputs that poison not only soil organisms but also the farmers themselves as well as their families.”

When SRI Pilipinas learned about the results, the group immediately suggested to Doc Joey to ask a Department of Agriculture representative to double-check the harvest and certify their findings. Unfortunately, the entire SRI crop had been harvested. “Actually, it was furthest from my mind that the outcome will be like this,” Doc Joey tells his online friends.

Doc Joey says he will try again on a larger scale – a 0.5-hectare rice field. And this time, he will be “more particular about documentation,” he says.

SRI Pilipinas also asked Doc Joey to join their 2013 contest, but the doctor demurred.

“I don’t like pressures,” he reasons. “My blood pressure might rise uncontrolled if I join,” he laughs.

“Pressure is good, Doc,” counters one of his online friends.

“Join the contest not to win, but to test yourself,” the group’s coordinator suggests. “Like some marathons, our contest is a competition among friends, and for most participants, finishing it is victory enough,” he adds.

Government support needed

Venancio Garde Jr., the SRI trainer who advised Doc Joey and who serves as the SRI Pilipinas coordinator for North Luzon, explains that they are using the contest format to promote knowledge of SRI more widely among farmers. “What we really need, though,” he says, “is for the government to promote SRI officially among farmers, like what the governments of Bihar and Cambodia have done.” With SRI, Cambodia doubled its national rice production in eight years. Bihar, a state in northeast India, was previously one of the most depressed areas in the country. With SRI, it is moving today to overtake Punjab as India’s top rice producer.

Garde thinks that an administration which adopts SRI as a government program will bring the country rice self-sufficiency within its term.

And it will make rice farming a viable operation for farmers, Doc Joey might add.

[To get free lessons in SRI, farmers can text their name and complete address to the SRI Pilipinas Hotline: 0939-117-8999.]

Where are the contestants: SRI Pilipinas 2013 organic SRI contest

This map contains the location of all Luzon contestants in the 2013 organic SRI contest of SRI Pilipinas.

This map  contains the location of all Palawan/Visayas/Mindanao contestants in the 2013 organic SRI contest of SRI Pilipinas.

 

Now available: printed and online versions of a book on SRI for Filipino rice farmers

A new 137-page book on the system of rice intensification (SRI) written specifically for the typical Filipino farmer is now available. It is hard-bound, written in Pilipino, and printed on larger-than-usual types (13 pts).

The book Ang Sistema sa Pagpapalago ng Palay can be ordered from SRI Pilipinas (63-939-117-8999; 63-917-811-7747). The book’s P300 price includes shipping. The book will be delivered by courier to any Philippine address or sent for pick up in a courier outlet nearest the given address. A free DVD on SRI is also included.

If you have a friend or relative who plants rice, the book will make a very nice gift.

The full text of the book can also downloaded for free. Its electronic version consists of three PDF files:

SRI is the revolutionary method of growing rice which raises yields and cut costs through simple changes in the way the farmer grows rice. It works with any variety and has been successfully tried in more than 50 countries.