PH needs more scientists, S&T-based approaches for farming

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DR. WILLIAM DAR

Consider this the second part of my column series on harnessing Science and Technology (S&T) to improve farm productivity, although my last column focused more on biotech or GM crops.

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For this column, I will discuss S&T-based Multi-disciplinary Research, Development and Extension (RDE) management in Southeast Asia toward inclusive and sustainable growth, starting with India as an example.

India, among others, benefited substantially from S&T-based interventions by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which I headed from 1999 to 2014. Although India’s population is now 1.25 billion, it does not need to import staples like rice, corn and wheat. In fact, the country even exports rice, corn, wheat, buffalo, cotton, and soybean meal.

Under my leadership, ICRISAT, besides developing new approaches and technologies, also partnered with public and private institutions so more smallholder farmers can be reached by joint projects and programs that are mostly S&T-based.

Based on the research of InangLupa, which I founded and head, India’s grain production since the 1950s increased by five times; milk production by 8.5 times; egg production 43 times; and fish production 13 times.

Since the 1950s, however, India’s water table and rainfall have declined by more than 100 mm while minimum temperature rose by 1.6 degrees Centigrade. Also, 102 million of the 140 million of lands that can be cultivated lie degraded. Despite these limitations, India faces no threat of food shortages.

If India did not employ numerous S&T interventions through RDE, its current food production would not be enough to feed its population given its reduced rainfall and degradation of 102 million hectares of farmland.
In the case of the Philippines, the country’s rainfall improved to 195 mm in 2016 from 170 mm from 1991, but I have yet to see efforts to put into place technologies to use the excess rainfall from the wet season for the dry season. The Philippines has three times the rainfall of India, but ironically our country is still a rice importer and cannot even export corn.

The increases in the production of major farm products in the Philippines over a 20-year period, or from 1996 to 2016, also leaves much to be desired, because if more S&T solutions were put into place in the country’s farming sector, we could export even more farm products in raw or finished form. Today, the Philippines can boast of only two farm products that generate an average of $1 billion annually: coconut and bananas.

Take a look at these statistics that InangLupa compiled on the production increases of major crops in the Philippines from 1996 to 2016: Palay, (unmilled rice) 17.63 million MT in 2016 from 11.28 million MT in 1996 for a 56-percent increase; corn, 7.22 million MT in 2016 from 4.15 million MT in 1996 for a 74-percent increase; livestock, 2.72 million MT in 2016 from 1.7 million MT in 1996 for a 60-percent increase; dairy, 21,160 MT in 2016 from 11,500 MT in 1996 for an 84-percent increase; poultry, 1.70 million MT in 2016 from 902,760 MT in 1996 for an 89-percent increase; and eggs 461,720 MT in 2016 from 205,590 MT in 1996 for a 125-percent increase. For fisheries, production increased to 4.86 million MT in 2012 from 1.9 million MT in 1982 for a 156-percent increase over a 30-year period.

I believe that if the Philippines was more active in tapping S&T-based solutions to increase farm and fisheries productivity, the increases in production of the farm products mentioned would easily be between 100 and 200 percent.

But sad to say, the Philippines is grossly lacking in researchers, with only 189 per million people, which is a pathetic figure. On the other hand, Israel has 8,300 researchers per million people, South Korea 6,900, Singapore 6,700, Malaysia 2,100 and Thailand 974. UNESCO suggests a ratio of 380 researchers/scientists per million people, which means the country needs 19,000 more to ramp up RDE in the country.

In the Asean region, the Philippines also has the lowest spending for research and development (R&D), or 0.14 percent of GDP in 2013. Singapore tops this chart with 2 percent in 2013 followed by Malaysia with 0.80 percent 2014, Thailand with 0.39 percent in 2011, Vietnam 0.21 percent and Indonesia 0.22 percent. UNESCO recommends at least 1 percent of a country’s gross domestic product be invested in R&D to achieve regional and global competitiveness.

R&D and RDE for that matter, however, is just one component of the Global Value Chains that is defined as a range of activities from product conception to its end use and beyond. With every country in the world now manufacturing various products, countries now compete for economic roles with the value chain. In the case of the Philippines, we can become competitive in more farm exports, whether in raw or processed form. However, my advocacy has always been for value-adding, because that can generate more income for farmers.

So for the Philippines, establishing a High-Value Agro-Food Chain with a strong S&T-based multidisciplinary RDE component for sustainability and inclusiveness is key to also lifting millions of smallholder farmers from poverty, and making the country a powerhouse when it comes to agricultural exports.

The High-Value Agro-Food Chain has five steps or components: Inputs, production, selection, trading, and distribution and marketing. Under inputs are seeds, fertilizers, agro-chemicals, farm equipment and irrigation equipment; production involves small to large farms; selection involves post-harvest, packing plants and storage units; trading also encompasses processing firms; and finally, distribution and marketing involves getting the products to supermarkets, food services, importers and wholesalers, and small-scale retailers.

Obviously, the components of inputs, production, selection and trading/processing are where S&T-based multidisciplinary RDE can or must be applied.

And unless the Philippines produces more scientists/researchers and increases its spending for R&D/RDE, it would be hard for the country to establish a High-Value Agro-Food. Putting into place policies, programs and projects is equally important, but we cannot fight a war against poverty without a well-trained and equipped army of scientists and researchers, who in turn also must fight alongside entrepreneurs and farmers to bring down poverty.

The key words here for success are: engagement and collaboration; I say this because based on my very personal experiences, being a research manager is not an easy task for much of what we do ultimately comes down to engagement and collaboration. We are the sum of our partnerships with community, universities, research institutions and government.

Maybe Filipinos should also change its culture of excessively worshipping showbiz personalities to admiring and emulating scientists. Maybe I can discuss that subject in a future column.

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