Hybrid abaca to help Pinoy farmers

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013


IN AN effort to rescue the declining production of abaca in the Philippines, local researchers developed a hybrid species that will produce more yield while keeping the plant free from diseases.

The abaca fiber, known for its strength, is being used for specialized paper products like tea bags, banknotes, filter paper, and other industrial products like lampshades, other furniture pieces and even car dashboards. Eighty-five percent of abaca all over the world comes from the Philippines while the rest are being supplied by Ecuador and Costa Rica.

But while the Philippines is a major supplier of good-quality abaca, viral infection slowed down production that supposedly yields $80 million yearly.

Dr. Antonio Lalusin, a crop scientist of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, said in a forum that from 2002 to 2010, typhoons and diseases caused the decline in harvest of abaca pulp.

The forum held in Quezon City this December was organized by the Philippine Council for Agricultural, Aquatic and Natural Resources for Research and Development, a research arm of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARD).

“Imagine Ecuador -- their abaca (species) came from the Philippines. If we’ll continue to lose production, it’s possible that Ecuador overtakes us in the world trade,” he said.

The Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) reported that from July to September 2013, abaca production dropped by 3.8 percent or 16.71 thousand metric tons from last year’s 17.38 thousand metric tons.

It also said, “Productions in Visayas continue to drop due to the ill effects of mosaic and bunchy tops diseases.”

Production has already slipped in Leyte, Southern Leyte and Bohol by 14 to 21 percent. Scientists estimated that this number will still go down to almost zero, following the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which ravaged Visayas, particularly the Samar-Leyte area on November 8.

Eastern Visayas, where Leyte and Southern Leyte are located, is among the top sources of abaca in the country.

“It’s possible that this year’s abaca production in Leyte, Southern Leyte and Western Samar, which were all destroyed by Yolanda, is zero,” Lalusin said.

To counter this problem, Lalusin and his colleagues have introduced a hybrid species of abaca that is expected to double the farmers’ yield and increase the resistance of the plants against diseases.

Lalusin said that traditional hybrids -- no transgenic method used -- were already developed since 1986 but it’s only until 2012 that they were able to use genomics to produce hybrids.

In genomics, Lalusin explained, they try to combine the genes with specific functions of at least two different species to come up with a new species with better characteristics.

Previous hybridization methods took 10 years but Lalusin said through modern gene technology, they will be able to produce the hybrid within five years.

Pacol banana, a wild banana species that closely resemble to saba, is also a known resistant to bunchy top disease. Pacol is endemic to the Bicol Region (also a top producer of abaca in the country) and was used during the study.

Lalusin said they try to combine first 50 percent of banana and 50 percent of abaca genome. Because the banana fiber is weaker than abaca, they had to reduce it until they were able to get the right combination of strength and disease resistance, ensuring better yield.

“It’s a bit like we married banana and abaca to produce a hybrid. It’s not GMO (genetically modified organism). It’s not transgenic. We modified the genes using conventional methods,” explained Lalusin.

At present, the average production of abaca fiber in the Philippines is 600 kilograms per hectare. But Lalusin said, “If we will be able to promote the usage of hybrids, we will double to production to 1,200 kilos per hectare.”

Their research was duly funded by different government agencies like the DOST-PCAARD, and the Department of Agriculture-Biotech. (Sunnex)

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