While coconut is one of the two agricultural commodities that earns the country more than a billion dollars in export revenues every year, its vast potential to earn even more has never been tapped because of numerous issues bugging the industry.
The area currently planted to coconut is about 3.565 million hectares or 26 percent of country’s total agricultural lands. Also, 68 out of 81 provinces are coconut-growing areas. At present, these lands host about 339 million bearing coconut trees and 3.4 million farmers who, ironically, live mostly below the poverty line even as coconut exports reached $2.0 billion in 2016.
Nut production on the average was 13.8 million or 46 nuts per tree per year.
Although coconut exports, primarily from processed products like oil, are expected to rise this year, the vast potential of the coconut industry has yet to be tapped and measures have to be put into place to include the poor farmers of the crop to earn more.
So what bugs the local coconut industry?
Besides low yield per tree and aging trees, the supply chain is largely unorganized and made up to dispersed small holdings that affects economies of scale in input supply, primary processing and marketing.
The small production lots and high transport translate to high cost of logistics, which affect both farmers and processors.
In the global scene, there are market threats from tariff and non-tariff barriers such as minimum residue levels and labeling regulations.
Addressing low yields at the farm level can be an excellent move to helping realize the coconut industry’s potential as a bigger generator of export dollars.
Obviously, the low yields are caused by poor genetics, nil fertilization, and limited replanting of tree stocks. Also 20 percent of coconut trees are already senile while most trees are planted in marginal lands that also affect yield. Meanwhile, large lands planted to the crop have low genetic potential.
I actually find the 46 nuts per tree/year yield to be ridiculously low considering that in India, the average is 250 nuts, Mexico 300 nuts and Brazil 400 nuts.
For those following my columns religiously, it would come as no surprise that I will recommend ramping up research and development (R&D) efforts to improve the productivity of coconut lands; in short, we need science-based solutions.
R&D efforts on coconut must address low productivity, pests and diseases, the establishment of post-harvest and processing facilities, value addition, crop diversification (crops and livestock integration), and soil mapping.
Alongside R&D efforts is the establishment of infrastructure and other logistics that include processing centers, other post- harvest facilities, farm-to-market roads and irrigation. Also, the power of ICT can be harnessed to improve production and delivery systems.
Then agribusiness development should be pursued, which will also include provision for credit and other risk management tools (like insurance and subsidy), so farmers and processors can pursue innovations that have potentials to improve the coconut industry.
For coconut farmers, capacity development activities should be pursued that are in sync with the changing dynamics of the coconut industry sector due to climate change, budget crunch, and dearth of an effective and efficient extension education service.
Now back to increasing yields, which I think is the best starting point to develop the Philippine coconut industry.
From the 46 nuts per year current average yield, it is possible to increase the productivity of coconut tress to 150 nuts per year using the hybrids developed by the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Coconut Authority.
Also, 300 nuts per year can be achieved in well-managed plantations by augmenting hybrid technology with good agricultural practices (GAP).
First, there should be a good and practical extension system to make the latest in coconut technology reach resource-poor farmers, particularly hybrids and GAP.
Also, coconut farmers should be provided workable capital that can be recovered when the dwarf hybrids start bearing nuts, which is 3-4 years instead of seven years for the traditional tall varieties.
A system of rebates should also be put into place to enable the farmer-supplier of raw materials to share with the high financial benefit of processing coconut into high-value projects. This measure will help address the issue of inclusiveness in developing the coconut industry, which today does not assure equal sharing of the industry’s fruits with very poor coconut farmers. You do not need an expert to substantiate this.
While much can be done to improve nut yield in the Philippines and improve processing and value-adding, one very critical issue that must be addressed is the negative perception toward coconut oil. The most damage was caused by the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Presidential Advisory on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease effectively warning against saturated fat consumption in food, which was issued only last June 15.
The United Coconut Association of the Philippines (UCAP) said last month that the AHA’s warning is not entirely new and has been there for the past 35 years and in eight editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Obviously, there was a campaign in the US against tropical oils like coconut oil from the 1980s of which the Philippines’ counter moves were not enough.
The UCAP said that the AHA guideline was actually aligned with the saturated fat-blood cholesterol-cardiovascular disease (CVD) hypothesis first proposed by Ancel Keys in 1957.
Also, a paper by Dr. Fabian M. Dayrit, a professor of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Philippine Chairman for Scientific Advisory Committee for Health, Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, dated June 19, 2017, concluded that soybean oil and not coconut oil was to blame.
The paper titled “The Warning on Saturated Fat: From Defective Experiments to Defective Guidelines” stated that “AHA should worry about the impact of too much soybean oil—not coconut oil—on the American diet. It should also rethink its support for the Dietary Guidelines.”
Dr. Dayrit further said that “Despite its widespread adoption, the saturated fat-cholesterol-heart disease hypothesis has been shown to be incorrect. Ancel Keys committed a number of errors and was unable to unambiguously demonstrate a causal link for the role of saturated fat in heart disease.”
UCAP also contends that there was a failure to distinguish medium-chain and long-chain saturated fats, and coconut oil is mostly medium-chain saturated fats, which is the healthy type of fat.
While UCAP is at the forefront of battling the bias of the AHA toward coconut oil, much needs to be done by the Philippine government itself to address the issue, if it truly cares for the coconut farmers and the industry that employs thousands of Filipinos.
Also, it is high time the government invest billions of pesos on ramping up coconut production at the farm level, involving small holders in primary processing so they can be made part of the agro-industrial fabric of the coconut industry, and to be more active in promoting Philippine coconut products worldwide.
As it is now, the country’s coconut industry can be called a “sick man” that really needs help. A lot of help, I must say.