Corn Farming in Alfonso Lista

The implications of promoting the market-oriented
production of modern plant breeds among Cordillera peasants

If former President Marcos had his “Green Revolution” and “miracle rice” program, the Arroyo administration has its agricultural modernization program and Bt corn. But the effects on the peasantry are the same dependence on creditors, indebtedness, soil degradation, and worsening pest infestation. And the peasants sink deeper into the problems of feudal bondage and poverty.

by Fernando Bagyan and Lulu Gimenez
Northern Dispatch

High Impact on Agro-input Utilization and Credit Availment Patterns

All corn farmers in Alfonso Lista, a town in Ifugao province bordering Isabela province in Northern Luzon, grow high-input varieties because they find these more productive and marketable. Some use genetically modified varieties but the majority are content with simple hybrids.

The peasants of Alfonso Lista were introduced to genetically engineered varieties of corn, also known as GMOs, by agricultural input suppliers in Isabela who had entered into dealership contracts with the corporations that developed them as well as officials from the Department of Agriculture (DA)

Bt corn was brought to Isabela by Monsanto. It was during the field trials the company conducted in 2000. Three years later, Monsanto’s Dekalb Yieldgard (DK 818 YG) reached Alfonso Lista.

But two years since, Bt corn has yet to become the area’s seed choice. Farm operators choose it only when they are late in starting their crop. Farmers have observed that Bt corn is more resistant to drought and corn borers, compared to the terminators and simple hybrids; also, rats avoid it.

As much as possible, the peasants of Alfonso Lista steer clear of Bt corn because they experience severe itching when handling the plants during crop care and threshing, as well as when handling the corn grain during shelling and drying. In addition, they have heard reports from fellow corn producers that there have been cases in Lamut, Ifugao of carabaos dying after eating the vegetative parts of the corn. Cattle’s hooves get cut when trampling corn stubbles in newly harvested fields.

An additional consideration is that the seeds of DK 818 YG cost about twice as much as other corn seeds (P4,650 vs. P2,300 to P2,800 per 18-kilogram sack). The herbicides required in the crop care are also much expensive (P1,350 vs. P250 to P900 per one-liter bottle). [The Bacillus thuringensis in Bt corn transfers to any weeds surrounding the corn plots and makes these weeds just as sturdy as the corn crop. Thus, there is the necessity of applying a very powerful herbicide specifically formulated to kill “Bt weeds”.]

The peasants of Alfonso Lista are not yet aware of the findings that the Bacillus thuringensis protein in Bt corn can be transferred to other plants in the farm environment, including any food crops that they grow near their corn fields for their own households’ consumption. Nor are they aware of the findings that the antibiotic markers that allowed the Bacillus thuringensis protein to be spliced into corn DNA can significantly reduce the ability of both people and livestock consuming corn grain to make use of antibiotics like Streptomycin. Most likely, had the people of Alfonso Lista been aware of these findings, they would be even less receptive to Bt corn – not withstanding the aggressive promotion of this GMO by their agricultural input suppliers, Monsanto and the government.

For them, the seed of choice is Syngenta’s NK 5447, a hybrid with a longer cob and more kernels.

On the average, corn producers use about eight cavans (400 kilograms) of fertilizer per hectare for a relatively new field. Fields that have been in use for several years require larger amounts. Some cornfields require an average of twelve to fourteen cavans (600 to 700 kilograms) of fertilizer. Fertilizer costs P740 to P970 per cavan.

The corn producers utilize herbicides quite heavily because they find this more economical than hiring extra-household labor. It would take ten persons to weed one hectare of cornfield for one day. Wages and food for 10 persons would cost up to P1,700. Herbicides would do the job for a minimum of P250 to a maximum of P1,350.

Lack of credit

Most of the corn-producing peasants of Alfonso Lista lack money to spend on the inputs they need; thus, they avail of credit. However, there are no functional credit institutions within the municipality. Both government and private agencies have tried to establish cooperatives, but all the co-ops they started have gone bankrupt because of mismanagement.

Some of the peasants get credit from the Santiago branch (Isabela) of the Quedan and Rural Credit Guarantee Corporation (Quedancor), which is affiliated with the Department of Agriculture (DA). Quedancor has been re-organized and placed directly under the office of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Its main function is to provide credit for endeavors in line with GMA’s agricultural modernization priorities.

Quedan borrowers need to have a group of at least three individuals. Collateral is required, usually in the form of land. The loan is given in the form of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. It matures within six months, at an interest rate of 1.5% monthly.

Majority of the farmers of Alfonso Lista do not avail of credit from Quedancor because they refuse to put their land as collateral. Land is precious to peasants from indigenous Cordillera cultures so they find it difficult to surrender it as collateral.

They access credit from agricultural input dealers in Santiago, Isabela. The creditor arranges all the necessary inputs at an interest of 30% for one cropping. The debtor is obliged to sell his or her crop to the creditor even if other dealers offer higher prices. No collateral is required. But reneging on the terms of the loan will have dire consequences. The debtor will be blacklisted by the creditor and lose access to future loans – unless the debtor’s inability to deliver his or her harvest and payment of the loan is due to crop failure. In this case, the payment of the loan will simply have to be made at the next harvest, but at double the interest. In the meantime, the debtor will have to take out another loan for the next cropping season.

Produce Buying and Pricing

The dealers classify the corn they receive and pay according to its appearance and moisture content. Freshly harvested corn is classified as sariwa (fresh). Corn that has been sun-dried for a few days is classified as skin-dry. Corn that has been dried completely is classified as ready-to-mill. Each category is further sub-categorized into Class A, B, and C, depending on grain quality.

No instruments are used to accurately measure moisture content and grain quality. The dealer simply scoops up a handful of corn grain, classifies it by sight, and quotes the corresponding price. Cases of under-classification are thus common.

Many of Alfonso Lista’s peasants feel that beyond the matter of moisture content – which naturally affects weight – classification is quite unnecessary. No matter the variations in grain quality, all the corn is mixed together when milled.

There has not been much variation in the price matrix for the last five years. The probability of a higher price is very remote because of abundant supply especially with the liberalization of agricultural imports.

In fact, it often happens that the corn market gets temporarily flooded. Then grain dealers stop buying. At such times, the peasants of Alfonso Lista are forced to store their corn, affecting grain quality.

Implications of the government’s agricultural modernization program

The government plays a key role in promoting modern corn breeds among the peasants of Alfonso Lista. The Municipal Agricultural Office (MAO)- Alfonso Lista has also been conducting field trials and technology demonstrations using different corn seeds provided free by the agricultural input-producing firms like Monsanto (through its Philippine research partner, Ayala), Syngenta, Pioneer, Corn World, BioSeed, and Asian Hybrid. In addition, the MAO has been selling these firms’ corn seeds to first-time users at subsidized prices, equivalent to half of the prevailing market price. The availability of credit from Quedancor is used as incentive to corn growers using modern corn breeds.

The experiences of corn-producing peasants in Alfonso Lista underscore the seriousness of the implications posed by the Philippine government’s promotion of the market-oriented production of modern plant breeds through its agricultural modernization programs.

First, the modernization program does not alter the traditional feudal relations in agricultural production and trade, such as those that pertain to input supply, credit and the sale of the produce. Peasants become dependent on and heavily indebted to creditors who control the supply of inputs as well as the trading of produce.

Second, peasants are caught in a pattern of steadily increasing input utilization. At first, the use of inputs increases because of the compulsion to earn more to be able to pay a standing debt by increasing the area planted with corn. Since land is limited, peasants eventually practice monocropping. This leads to problems related to soil degradation and pest infestation, thereby progressively increasing the utilization of fertilizers and pesticides.

Worse, peasants, such as those from the Vegetable Belt- from La Trinidad, Benguet northward to Bauko, Mountain Province and eastward to Tinoc, Ifugao are no longer able to cope with unpaid loans especially after being affected by incidences of crop failure and dips in the prices of agricultural produce. Ironically, the effect is that they had to contract more loans to be able to purchase goods for their subsistence such as rice, dried fish, and processed foods. They again turn to agricultural input dealers for credit and the cycle of indebtedness continues. This reinforces the centuries-old problem of feudal bondage and worsening poverty for the peasantry. (

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