First of two parts
Coconut trees have been a common sight in the country’s rural areas. But alongside areas with many coconut trees are mostly communities where there is poverty and little progress. And the coconut tree has been dubbed “The Tree of Life.” I find this ironic.
Also ironic is while coconut products, primarily in oil form, generate more than $1 billion in export receipts annually, about 90 percent of the approximately 3.4 million coconut farmers still form part of the country’s “poorest of the poor.”
I could say at this point that the coconut industry’s potential has not been tapped because of low productivity from challenges like pest attacks, prevalence of typhoons, poor management practices and very low copra prices. And let me add that the local coconut industry has not yet capitalized on the growing demand for non-traditional products like coconut water and milk.
Coconut along with rice and corn dominate the Philippine agricultural landscape, with about 80 percent of lands devoted to farming planted to those three. While the yields of rice and corn are gradually increasing, those for coconut trees remain anemic and disappointing.
Currently, the average yield of coconut trees in the Philippines is 45 nuts per tree annually, which is below the 200 to 400 nuts per tree of countries like India and Brazil. The only consolation is that the Philippines has vast lands planted to coconut, approximately 3.5 million hectares. India has 2.14 million hectares of land planted to coconut, but produces more nuts per tree than the Philippines.
According to the United Coconut Associations of the Philippines Inc., using 2014 figures, India produced 21.665 billion nuts, about 47 percent more than the Philippines’ 14.70 billion.
The good news is that it is possible to increase the productivity of coconut trees in the Philippines to 150 nuts per year using the hybrids developed by the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA). Furthermore, a production level of 300 nuts per year could be achieved in well-managed plantations by augmenting hybrid technology with good agricultural practices.
But since it takes three to four years for hybrid coconut trees to bear nuts, interim measures are being pushed by the PCA like intercropping in current coconut lands to at least increase the earnings of coconut farmers. So, under the Kaanib and Intercropping Program of the PCA, the agency is releasing livestock, poultry and seeds for short-gestation crops like vegetables to areas that are most affected by dropping copra prices. These include coconut farms that are farthest from milling facilities.
The PCA is also coordinating with the Department of Social Welfare and Development for the inclusion of farmers in the department’s aid/welfare programs like the cash for work and Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps. Furthermore, there is a need to increase the incentives for the Participatory Coconut Planting Program (PCCP) from P40 to P85 per seedling.
Over the long-term, there is an urgent need to increase the lands planted to coconut, which the PCA will undertake in the next few years through programs like the PCCP. The PCA is also encouraging multilevel farming, where lands planted to other crops would also be planted to new hybrid coconuts.
Hybrids are still the best option for new coconut planting, as traditional tall varieties bear fruit in about seven years. Also, the yield of hybrids, as stated earlier, could reach 150 nuts per tree annually.
The industry needs new hybrid coconut trees, which will allow the country to take advantage on the European ban on palm oil stemming from environmental issues.
My message to PCA is this: go full steam on increasing the number of hybrid coconut trees in the country!
Today, most coconut farmers still rely largely on copra as their main or major income source. And since most coconut farmers are still fragmented or are disorganized, they have no power to command uniform or better prices for the commodity.
Meanwhile, billions of liters of coconut water are thrown away as farmers extract the coconut meat to produce copra, even as the world demand for coconut water is increasing by leaps and bounds.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the Philippines exported $89 million worth of coconut water, totaling 63 million liters. This is a small figure because according to studies by the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) and the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PHilMech), both under the Agriculture department, the volume of coconut water that could be recovered in the Philippines is 2.4 billion liters annually.
The article “Agencies see vast potential for local coconut water production” published in The Manila Times on Jan. 18, 2019 showed BAR and PHilMech are undertaking a project to develop the technology and enterprise system and marketing for coconut water.
Also, the project is testing a locally developed village-level coconut water processing machine that could process 2,000 coconuts into 2,000 350-milliliter bottles per day.
According to University of Asia and the Pacific’s (UA&P) industry report The Coconut Industry: Local and Global Perspectives, coconut water is one of the fastest-growing beverage categories in the global market, increasing by 154 percent per year on volume and 159 percent per year on value during the past 10 years. So, what are we waiting for?
The UA&P report also said exports of coconut milk powder had been growing by 38 percent per year on volume, with countries like The Netherlands, Japan, the United States, France and Australia as the major markets. Again, what are we waiting for?
I must emphasize, however, that as the exports for non-traditional coconut products like coconut water and powder increases, there is a need for poor farmers to also enjoy the fruits of the harvest, or for them to earn more by including them in the value chain. Also, major agribusiness companies entering into mutually beneficial agreements with coconut cooperatives under the “big brother-small brother” arrangement would help lift millions of poor coconut farmers out of poverty.
In the next installment of this series, I will discuss, among others, the potential of increasing the coco methyl ester blend in fuel in accordance with Republic Act 9367, or the “Biofuels Act of 2006,” in leveling up the country’s coconut industry.