How Climate Change is Going to Affect the Agricultural and Fishing Industries of the Philippines

Rice farmers in Nueva Vizcaya harvest rice seedlings. (Source:
Joaquin Go/ILO)

The agricultural and fishing spheres are predicted to be among the most affected sectors because of climate change, especially in poorer countries such as the Philippines. A country still transitioning to industrialization, the Philippines already suffers from typhoons and irregular El Niño episodes. These episodes, combined with a rising sea-level, an inability to prevent major destruction from hindering the agricultural production of rice and sugar, and over-consumption are leading to a decrease in fish populations and agricultural output. This will cause the Philippines to face an even larger population of food insecurity within the country, as well as a decline in economic activities in the upcoming decades.

Joel Ayco, a farmer in Barangay Midpapan in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato sprays pesticide in his rice field in 2012. (Source: Ruby Thursday/
Minda News)

Rice plays a central role in the culture, food supply, and economies of the Philippines. While a Spanish colony, the production, and handling of rice were drastically altered in the Philippines. In order to pay for the archipelago’s transformation into Spanish colonies, a plow technology was introduced by Spanish friars that included the domestication of the carabao, a type of water buffalo. The system relied on monsoon rains and the methodical transplanting of seedlings from seedbeds to rice fields.

The Philippines’ Green Revolution was accompanied by the expanded use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The number of fertilizers and pesticides rose from 668 tons in 1976 to 1,222 tons in 1988 with a twelve-year increase of more than 80 percent. In order to stimulate productivity among local farmers, the government undertook a major expansion of the nation’s irrigation system. The regions with the expanded irrigation systems grew from under 500,000 hectares in the mid-1960s to 1.5 million hectares in 1988, almost half of the potentially irrigable land on all of the Philippine islands.[ More irrigation systems allow for more sowed rice fields earlier in the season, which then allow for more bountiful harvests before the typhoon season begins in June.  In 2010, nearly 15.7 million metric tons of rice were produced and accounted for 22 percent of gross value added in agriculture. Rice in the Philippines is produced extensively throughout the regions of Luzon, southern and central Mindanao, and western Visaya.

Prehistoric immigrants to the Philippines brought along techniques for growing sugar cane, yet commercial sugar production failed to fully develop until the Spanish conquest. Researchers believe sugar cane was domesticated somewhere prior to this conquest and brought to the southern points of the archipelago by Austronesian-speaking migrants, from which it slowly progressed to the north.

The process of extracting sugarcane juice in the 17th century was done primitively; pressure was exerted by foot-operated levers and was later followed by wooden rolls used by hand. The wood rollers were gradually substituted for stone cylinders as an effect of Chinese immigration into the islands later in the century. Sugar production steadily rose, and its exportation began in the middle of the 18th century to Asian countries. The Royal Company of the Philippines was established thirty years later alongside British occupation and the exportation of sugar began to flourish, awarding the Philippines as the biggest exporter of sugar throughout Asia.

A farmer in the municipality of Mabinay works to collect sugar cane (Source: Brian Hermon/flickr)

The modernization of the production of sugar greatly altered the agrarian society over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. In 2005, the Food and Agriculture Organization ranked the Philippines as the ninth largest sugar producer in the world and second largest sugar producer among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries behind Thailand. Sugar accounts for 7 million metric tons of production in the Philippines alone. Sugarcane is grown in many of the provinces on the archipelago, from Luzon to Mindanao, similar to rice.

The rise of global temperatures is playing a vital role in changes in the agricultural yields of the Philippines’ cash crops. This eventually leads to economic consequences because of the changes in production. Andrew Goudie and Vaclav Smil’s work argues that local and regional scarcities of land, water, and diverse biota are already common, and they may become increasingly severe without appropriate management. Climate variability has a wide range of both direct and indirect impacts on agricultural production. 82.4 percent of the total Philippine rice losses over the course of a twenty-year span from 1970 to 1990 was the result of typhoons, floods, and droughts. Research published in 2017 by the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science finds that global warming could cause a 20 percent increase in the areas impacted by temperatures changes, such as the Philippines, and extremes during El Niño and La Niña events, and an estimated 10 percent increase in the areas impacted by these changes in precipitation. Heavy rainfall and tropical storms have negative effects on the amount of sugar produced by farmers. A spokesperson from the Sugar Regulatory Administration in the Philippines released a statement in 2018 announcing that the agency is predicting lower sugar outputs each coming year as a result of the growing extremes of the El Niño and La Niña phenomena.

Environmental and agricultural researchers at the University of York and Uludag University believe that working with farmers in terms of climate change mitigation is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Improvement of land use applications, such as better management of rice paddies, could quickly contribute to a significant decrease in methane.

The researchers, Cumhur Aydinalp and Malcolm S. Cresser, also conclude that irrigated rice fields emit more methane deep-water rice. If countries such as the Philippines implemented strategies like a reduction of two-spray pesticide programs or intermittent soil drying, greenhouse gas emissions would also be reduced over time. It is extremely improbable that any Southeast Asian country would switch from traditional staple crops to high yielding varieties, from rice to legumes.

In developing countries, biodiversity is able to be used to help resource-poor farmers, who are commonly confined to marginal soils and rained areas to achieve year-round food self-sufficiency and reduce their reliance on scare and expensive inputs such as pesticides and herbicides. Biodiversity is a technique that could possibly rebuild the productive capacities of their small holdings, which are usually the main source of income for themselves and their families.

The inconsistent output of rice production in recent years has been largely attributed to the many fluctuations in weather patterns, including the negative drought effects of the El Niño phenomenon. Because the majority of sugarcane and rice production are made of local farmers, they lack the resources to implement modern farming practices that would be able to mitigate climate change conditions. 

The fishing industry is another extremely profitable enterprise of the Philippines, facing many issues of production, from coral reef destruction to overfishing in the 21st century. The archipelago has over two-thousand islands and much like rice and sugarcane, fish have always played a central role in the diets of the Philippine people. The earliest fishermen used spears as their main technique when gathering their food. Pole spears and sling spears were used primitively, eventually making way for bottom fishing techniques used around reefs today. Bottom fishing consists of multiple minuscule hooks attached to a lead stone to weight the line.  Baits with crustaceans such as shrimp and shellfish are then cut into small pieces and baited on the small hooks.

Today, the Philippines is the 8th biggest fishing country in the world. The yield of the fisheries in the Philippines is an estimated $2.5 billion with over 2 million tons of fish captured for mass consumption each year. The Philippines catches millions of tune species, shrimp, prawns, and crabs, exporting them to nearby countries such as China who rely on the islands to provide their seafood in many restaurants.

Dozens of species of fish are researched to have disappeared or are extremely close to becoming extinct from the marine biodiversity hotspots of the Southeast Asian islands. According to a study conducted with one of the oldest conservation groups in the Philippines, Haribon, and Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, there are over 59 coral reef species that are unable to be located since the 1950s. Marine biologists working with Haribon associate this loss as a combination of overfishing to meet the demand from a quickly-rising global population and a changing climate. The population in the Philippines alone has increased by more than 80 million people since the 1950s, with a current population of over 107 million people today.

Workers sort fish caught through the process of bottom trawling. Source: Athit Perawongmetha/Greenpeace)

Ocean experts working with the Environmental Defense Fund hypothesize that local fisheries will collapse and struggle to recover without quick and meaningful fishery reforms at both a national level and at a business level. Local fishing communities in the Philippines face higher rates of poverty compared to the general population of the Philippines, causing economic devastation and food crises. These researchers have predicted that the Philippines will begin to rely on other countries’ fishing exports by 2040 in order to feed its growing number of millions of people. New research by the Environmental Defense Fund shows that if Filipino fishermen were to adhere to sustainable fishing practices in the Philippines, the fish population would quadruple, feeding over 25 million more people by 2050. This would also lead to an increase in fishing profits by an estimated 500 percent. In order to utilize sustainable fishing practices, fishermen, both at a local and corporation-wide level, must all agree to follow limits on the amount of fish caught in exchange for an ownership stake in their fisheries. As the fish population slowly recovers, the fishermen also benefit directly. Scientific studies have validated that this approach, which is already in place and benefitting 40 countries, leads to an increase in the numbers of fish in the water, more food available for a country riddled with starvation, and more income for the impoverished communities.

These sustainable management plans for the Philippines put into place in order to prevent fish populations from dwindling even more in the coming decade, were publicly announced at the World Ocean Summit in 2018. These management plans included goals to move new and sidelined capital into fishery investments, align that capital with responsible management, and will give investors confidence that building environmental and social sustainability into fisheries will also yield a return on their investments. Climate change, however, may prevent these sustainable management plans from meeting their targeted goals.

The oceans surrounding the Philippine islands are subject not only to oil spills and toxic waste, but face typhoons and red tide, an upwelling of nutrients from the sea floor, as well. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources have concluded that the prevalent fall of weather in the country also stretches its effect on the growth and reduction of fish. In a 2014 study by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Philippines Fisheries Development Authority, fishermen are realizing the possible impacts of climate change and irregular weather patterns as it slowly declines below 68°F. Popular species of fish such as milkfish and tilapia are threatened because they require warmer waters to spawn in and survive in.

Over-exploitation within the fishing industry, combined with mass amounts of pollution and the impact of climate change will prove detrimental unless sustainable agricultural and fishing practices are implemented. Species of fish will disappear from the Philippine islands, and staple crops such as rice and sugarcane will produce lesser-quality foods and lower yield amounts. A 2018 study conducted on poverty and hunger in the Philippines has shown that hunger poses dangerous health consequences for the Philippines, with almost 21 percent of Filipinos as being underweight and over 32 percent being stunted.

The 2017 Typhoon Bopha led to damages in agriculture worth over $660 million, with farmers already living in poverty is the most affected. Climate change will affect the Philippines disproportionately, targeting those living in poverty, from the local fishing communities to small-scale farmers who only produce enough to support their families. Experts and governments must band together to prevent these disasters and to create a more nourished, more just world.

Olga Rozmarynowska

Olga Rozmarynowska is a junior transfer from the University of California, Santa Cruz, doubling in Society and Environment and Classical Civilizations. Her research interests include climate change mitigation and energy policies in developing regions as well as Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History”. In her spare time, Olga is a mediocre harpist and hornist, Epsilon Eta’s favorite social activities intern, and is always excited to talk about National Geographic Explorers, geospatial technologies, volcanoes, and the adventures of Carmen Sandiego. Give her a holler and send her some of your favorite songs at Olga Rozmarynowska is an editor for the Environmental Justice and Politics team.

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