It may be four years too late, but it seems the Department of Agriculture has finally realized that the twin infestations of coconut scale insects and coconut leaf beetles rampaging through the Philippines’ most valuable export crop are actually a problem that needs to be addressed.
Concerned stakeholders in the coconut industry, however, are not at all happy with the proposals in the “Scale Insect Emergency Action Program” announced by Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization Secretary Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan this past Monday, fearing that the plan could actually do more harm than good.
The epidemic killing the nation’s coconut trees is caused by two different pests. The more serious of the two is the coconut scale insect (Aspidiotus destructor), which breeds rapidly and can cover the undersides of coconut leaves, killing them by blocking the leaf’s natural pores; as an added evil bonus, as the tiny insect feeds, it also poisons the leaf with toxic saliva.
The second infestation is the coconut leaf beetle, also called the coconut hispine beetle (Brontispa longissima Gestro), which also feeds on coconut leaves. Both pests can and do spread to other crops such as bananas, other fruit trees and vegetables.
While they are difficult to control, the two pests are not impossible to conquer, and the effective method of doing so is not at all new; in doing a little background research for this column, I was directed to a paper written in 2000 that detailed the history of successful efforts using biological control agents, i.e. parasitic aphids and small beetles, to control coconut scale infestations in Fiji and Indonesia between 1928 and 1935. The key to success, however, lies in correctly choosing the predator insects for the species of pests involved, and deploying them quickly as soon as it becomes evident that an infestation is a growing problem.
Even though the Department of Agriculture’s quasi-Secretary Pangilinan tried to portray the new plan as a proactive and comprehensive program that will quickly set things right for the beleaguered coconut sector, it is clear that the Aquino-era DA has already failed miserably. The concerned agencies—the Philippine Coconut Authority, the Bureau of Plant Industry and the Department of Science and Technology —are in panic mode only now that the crisis has seeped through the thick layer of insulation that separates the Office of the President from the real world, provoking His Excellency B.S. Aquino 3rd to “order” them to do something about it.
An open letter issued by Rene Pamintuan, one of the leaders of a coconut growers’ and stakeholders’ advocacy group called the Save the Coconut Movement (SCM), to Secretary Pangilinan makes some damning accusations which, unfortunately for the government, are all completely verifiable:
• The coconut scale insect problem was first reported as a serious infestation back in 2011 by one municipality in Batangas, by way of an urgent request for DA assistance in getting the problem under control before it got out of hand; that request was apparently set aside and forgotten.
• It took three years for the particular species of coconut scale to be correctly identified (Aspidiotus destructor rigidus, a particularly tough variety that is native to Indonesia), in part because the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) must rely on other government agencies to conduct laboratory research, and has to course any request for quarantine of affected areas through the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), who claims – probably correctly, as infuriating as it is to coconut stakeholders – that they have neither the budget nor the manpower to do that.
• There is a huge disconnect between the government’s and the industry’s understanding of the severity of the problem. Pangilinan cited a rate of spread of 400 meters a month, but reports shared with the SCM group by farmers indicated a rate of spread closer to 10 kilometers per day; the real rate is certainly somewhere between those two extremes, but just as certainly much nearer the higher estimate. The main areas affected now are the Southern Tagalog region and Basilan Island; given rather porous quarantine and inspection controls, the fear is the infestation will probably also take hold in Leyte and Samar as farmers replace the vast number of coconut trees lost to last year’s Typhoon Yolanda.
• While the P750 million plan presented by Pangilinan does include the standard biological control methods, those seemed to be offered as a maintenance measure, with heavy reliance placed on sub-organic sprays (combinations of oil and liquid soap) and chemical injections of trees with neonicotinoid pesticides. Although neonicotinoids apparently have not been widely used in coconuts, they are effective; a crude version made from soaking used cigarette filters has long been used by marijuana growers as a pesticide, as one example.
The problem—and it is a big problem—is that neonicotinoids are a sort of “atomic bomb” of pesticides, as deadly or even more so than DDT, the use of which has been banned for close to half a century. Neonicotinoids will kill the coconut pests, but also everything else – bees, butterflies, birds, and even small animals. Coconut stakeholders are gravely concerned that the use of these chemicals will result in Philippine exports being rejected in favor of “cleaner” products, and even banned outright in some markets. As an added insult, the injection method has not even been confirmed as being reliably effective; the few studies that are available disagree with one another, or have inconclusive results.
Coconut stakeholders like the SCM are strongly pushing for a massive effort to deploy the tried-and-true biological control agents, which would involve education and assistance to farmers along with direct action by the DA and other agencies. The organic approach is certainly a much more rational plan in the sense that it does no further harm and can at least point to historically successful outcomes, but the disturbing reality is that it may already be too late to salvage the coconut industry – and with it the $2 billion export resource it represents. Any plans to address the crisis – which, ideally, would be a product of the Administration actually working with a concerned sector, for a change – should now include detailed alternatives to “saving” the coconut industry, because that seems increasingly unlikely to be possible.