• Too late to panic about coconuts

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    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.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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    4 Comments

    1. Steve Abalayan on

      I share the same concern on the delayed reaction from the concerned agencies. Our group started the advocacy to seriously raise the matter to highest awareness. Our aim was to establish the urgency of the situation but it is up to the experts to act promptly. As late as January 2014 summit of some coco industry NGOs still ignores CSi as a threat. CSI concern and urgency are not well established not only in the government side but also on the private sector side as well. That notion has changed now after our own awareness campaigns. Calabarzon is doomed having outbreaks of CSI. The state of emergency will help and I can see drastic re-alignment of resources to combat CSI in Calabarzon. We have raised 7-point recommendations along with our detailed report of CSI insfestation. We have identified 5 methods to eradicate CSI but it is unfortunate that coconut dont have a history of infestation unlike other crops. So coconut industry dont have the direct experience to combat the CSI. Even PCA have no expertise. Anyhow, in OUTBREAK AREAS the combination of 5 methods is sought (1. prunning, 2. organic spraying, 3. Systemic injection, 4. Bio-control 5. survilalnce and quarantine). The most preferred BIO-CONTROL is promoted by UPLB and NCPC in Los Banos and environmental groups. However, despite the mandate, personnel, time, labs and logistics both UPLB and NCPC could not demonstrate effectiveness of this bio-control to cure few coconuts in their own campuses. We also realized that only very few agencies and few farmers were doing the CSI but the result were not very promising for the applications were random. Recurrence happened. The declaration of state of emergency is a big boost to the unified action in an AGREED TIME FRAME we sought. Calabarzon coconuts are lost now so there is less to lose if the system fails but if the protocols laid works there is so much to gain. The ideological principle to use bio-control only is biased and very slow process compared to the rate of spread. We dont have the resources to be bias only to bio-control and accelerate the process. So the combination of methods will be considered based on DEGREE OF INFESTATION. There is a valid growing concern of the systemic injection but we dont have alternative method at hand to trap CSI food funnel away from other species. Time is an essence of cure and we can use the most available method with extreme caution. The method is not fool proof but taking a chance can bring a opportunity of winning than nothing at all. I’m not promoting the questioned chemical but if that is the cure then we take the chance that wait for our coconuts demise. No pain no gain. Please join the advocacy to support the present plan of PCA CSI task force as presented and be vigilant of the effects for remedy promptly by joining us visit sites for monitoring. There is too much talking than action. Lets help and participate by being involved to find the soonest cure. This is an opportunity for us Filipinos to be united to fight a common enemy- CSI.

    2. This serious problem that coconut farmers are facing today apparently reveals the lack of present government’s vision and concern of the coconut industry in spite that this industry generates USD 2billion export revenue which is indeed valuable to our country’s economy. How come that our government leaders keep on boasting of its slogan of “Tuwid Na Daan” when they are neglecting this serious problem? It is indeed very doubtful that our current government leaders are able to solve this problem when their term is about to end. Please remember to kick them out in the 2016 election.

    3. victor m. hernandez on

      There are at least two resources for the coconut industry deelopment that may now be considered underutilized, un-utilized or inutile: The Billions of Pesos of Coconut Levy Fund, and the Philippine Coconut Authority. Both are supposed to be at the service of the coconut industry and farmers, all year round. Whatever happened to all these inaction and gross neglect of the resources that damage the coconut industry. The least that can be done is to make the plan of the use of these resources, and the identification of people culpable for gross negligence, and apathy. Pestilence do not sprout overnight, but lethargy is even slower to be done away with from people who just wallow in comfort and inaction. The economics of the coconut industry is well known and we expect a multiple deceleration of income in this industry that affects more that 40% of the people. The urgency for action was needed yesterday.