by Dr. Emil Javier
October 24, 2015
‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ – Robert Kennedy
Even as the Supreme Court deliberates on the injunction against the Executive Orders issued by President Aquino regarding the safekeeping and utilization of the Coco Levy Funds, it is timely that we inquire into the substance of the Coconut Industry Road Map, its strategic directions and how the Coco Levy Funds (CLF) can best be deployed for the sustained and long-term benefit of the coconut farmers.
Coconut farmers are among the poorest of the poor primarily because of two circumstances:
1)The primary productivity of the coconut palm is low, and
2)80% of coconut farms are monocropped i.e. they depend almost entirely on copra for their income.
Not until these two fundamental shortcomings are addressed, coconut farmers and the Philippine coconut industry face an uncertain future.
With little to look forward to in terms of income, coconut farmers allow their trees to go senile, find all excuses to cut them down for lumber as they are doing now, not bother to replant and eventually replace them with other crops that will bring them higher income e.g. coffee, cacao, many fruit crops and other high value vegetables and ornamentals.
However, there is a better scenario in terms of profitability, equity and ecological sustainability: All out replanting with high yielding coconut hybrids and intercropping with other high value crops where agronomically feasible and where the farmer can be assured of a market for the produce. It’s like having your proverbial cake and eat it too!
COCONUT HYBRIDS – A KEY LONG TERM SOLUTION
The national average production is a measly 43 nuts per tree per year, equivalent to less than 1.0 ton copra per hectare per year. The regular open pollinated tall varieties with proper fertilization produce 2-3 tons copra per hectare per year. On the other hand, the 12 coconut hybrids developed by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) yield easily 4 to 6 tons copra/ha/year.
Coconut’s most formidable competitor, the oil palm industry, derives much of its competitiveness from the wholesale adoption of very productive hybrids. We should narrow this yield competitive disadvantage as soon and as best as we can. Use of hybrids is one, if not the key, long term solution.
Curiously the draft Coconut Industry Road Map and the Coco Levy Fund Road Map required by Executive Order 180 signed by President Benigno C. Aquino as prerequisites for the utilization of the Coco Levy Funds included REPLANTING but no mention of with what?
This is an unfortunate omission! Mindlessly replanting with inferior, unselected seedlings will not take the coconut industry anywhere and only perpetuate the farmers’ penury.
The coconut palm is productive for 60–80 years. It’s very important therefor that the planting materials be of the highest genetic potential. The usual objections that coconut hybrids seed nuts are not readily available and are expensive are short–sighted and self–defeating. Even at P50 per coconut hybrid seedling, they are cheap when amortized over their productive lifespan of 60–80 years.
In fact the additional cost of hybrid seedlings can be recovered with just five extra nuts by the fourth year because hybrids are precocious and start fruiting in 3–4 years compared with the regular seed nuts which take 6–8 years.
The magnitude of the challenge can be gleaned from the following numbers: We have approximately 324 million coconut trees of which 20% (68 million) are deemed senile and immediately due for replanting. If we target replanting all the senile trees within seven years, we will need to produce 10 million hybrid seed nuts a year. At a purchase cost of P50 per seed nut the budget requirement is P500 million a year which could easily be sourced from CLF and the regular budget of PCA.
TARGET: 1,000 HECTARES OF HYBRID SEED GARDENS
The big question is not whether but how soon can we do it? We will need to plant 100,000 dwarf palms as female parents to produce 10 million hybrid seed nuts per year. At 100 trees per hectare, these translate to 1,000 hectares of hybrid seed gardens. At an average of four hectares per hybrid seed garden, all we need to do is to identify 250 small coconut farmers who are willing to engage in commercial hybrid seed production. This should not be a problem (The numbers are rounded off for easy comprehension).
Establishment of coconut hybrid seed gardens is not technically complicated nor costly. The key input is the supply of seed nuts of the recommended dwarf female parents which PCA can supply provided we support their nurseries in Zamboanga, Davao, Bohol, Albay and Aurora. The rest of the cost is labor for planting the seedlings and ring weeding for the first 2–3 years by which time the coconuts would have outgrown the weeds.
The more substantial investment for which the farmer-cooperators need interim financing is the intercropping with high value crops. While waiting for the coconuts to fruit, the farmer – cooperators can plant corn and high-value vegetables to generate food and immediate cash for sustenance.
In order to reduce cost of transport of hybrid seed nuts and to insure from catastrophic losses from typhoons and other disasters, the 250 small hybrid seed producers should be strategically dispersed in the major coconut growing areas in Southern Tagalog, Bicol, Eastern Visayas and the six regions of Mindanao. The provincial and municipal agriculture offices will be important partners in identifying these farmer entrepreneurs and ensuring their cooperation.
RESTORING PCA INSTITUTIONAL CAPABILITY
More problematic at this time is the institutional capability of PCA to field the technical people who will closely supervise the farmer – cooperators to make sure
1) The farmers diligently manually pick off the male flowers to prevent self – pollination, and
2) The farmers dust the male pollen supplied by PCA on the female flowers at the right time (usually mid – morning) to attain very high fruit setting.
PCA’s research department was decimated by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) reorganization plan started 12 years back and finally implemented in 2014. The research staff was reduced from 400 to its current 56 plantilla positions. With six experiment stations and a central analytical laboratory, you can imagine how thin they are on the ground. Retirements, transfers and resignations and a long hiatus in recruitment and graduate training left a once formidable research entity under the old Philippine Coconut Research Institute (PHILCORIN of yesteryears) into literally a shell of its former self. To date PCA has only one Ph.D. left.
PCA must be provided with three times as many research positions to restore its capacity to respond to the R & D requirements of the coconut industry. In the interim, PCA can tap faculty of the state colleges and universities (SCUs) in the regions.
These are the mileposts and program details which PCA should spell out otherwise the Coconut Industry Roadmap will not take the industry anywhere. The initial target should be at least 10 million hybrid seed nuts per year. The more aggressive target is 20 million hybrid seeds per year to make over the entire coconut hectarage into high yielding hybrids within a generation. The poor coconut farmers have waited long enough.
This is another story but perhaps it is better that coconut research be reorganized into a stand – alone research and development institute under the Department of Agriculture, like Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC). Confounding science with regulation, finance and industry restructuring has not worked for us. Better to leave science alone to give it more flexibility and self – direction and freedom from undue political interference!