Domoguen: Feeding the nation through science-based food production

Mountain Light

OVER the past decades, government and agricultural industry leaders around the world have searched and looked to science to help feed a growing population.

Estimate from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that more than one billion people go to bed hungry. The vast majority of these are disadvantaged populations in low-income countries.

Science solutions to increasing yield sustainably in a world with decimated natural resources will require the use of less space, water, Fertilizers, Insecticides, and pesticides in securing food for the future.

Food is now produced inside abandoned tunnels and under vertical story greenhouse to maximize space and production.

In advanced countries, producing enough food and making it available and affordable to the population is easy. Farmers depend on research outputs from biotechnology, high-tech seeds, mechanization, to low-tech farming practices to grow food.

The country’s investment in agricultural research and development (R&D) today as a percentage of the agricultural GDP has hovered just around 0.3 percent annually. That is way below1 percent of the GDP recommended by the World Bank.

I recall that as early as the 1980s, the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) has been proposing and urging the government to spend more on agricultural research and development (R&D).

The country has yet to become crazy about making science a driver of Philippine agriculture.

Particularly, the sector’s key policymakers must warm-up, not hostile, to the idea of dramatically increasing government investment in agricultural research.

For instance, during the budget hearing last week, Senator Cynthia Villar chided the officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) for allocating a “crazy” amount of its proposed budget for research and overhead expenses.

She got riled up after learning that the agency would spend P150 million for research on top of the P265 million it is proposing for calamity assistance under its National Corn Program (NCP).

However, she wanted the agency to continue with a dole out of seeds, and pieces of machinery, etc.

As a Senator, Villar’s tirade against the DA weighs heavily on the actions of the officials of the agency. People look up to her intelligent and responsible guidance of the agency and its officials in serving the nation’s farmers.

In the Philippines, corn is the second most important crop after rice with 600,000 farm households employed in different businesses in the commodity’s value chain.

As of 2012, around 2.594 million hectares of the nation's agricultural land is under corn cultivation.

Unlike in other countries, the corn being produced in the Philippines is mostly for human consumption and for animal feed.

Sweet corn varieties are usually grown for human consumption as kernels. Field corn varieties are used for animal feed.

In developed countries, the six major types of corn produced like dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, popcorn, flour corn, and sweet corn are utilized for a myriad of industrial uses besides human consumption as food and as animal feed.

Corn-based human food uses include grinding into cornmeal, pressing into corn oil, and fermentation and distillation into alcoholic beverages like bourbon whiskey.

In the USA, a food processor has over 300 recipes of corn, including Hot Corn Dip, Slow Cooker Black Bean Bacon Corn Dip, Black Bean and Corn Tacos, Salted Caramel Corn, and Roasted Corn Potato Chowder.

In developed countries, corn is also used in making ethanol and other biofuels, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics (biodegradable plasticware), batteries, on matches, textile products (carpet!), and crayons.

That is just the tip of the iceberg if you visit countries around the world who have invested in research to develop their corn industry and its by-products.

I wished Senator Villar would have asked the DA how the research budget is going to be used and we would have learned more from the exchange besides the colorful language she employed to chide the agency's officials.

To be competitive in a technological-savvy world, we must invest heavily in research and development (R&D).

Sadly, in the Global Innovation Index (GII) report, the Philippines ranked poorly at 76th under this category. Singapore is at the top and other Asian countries faring better: Malaysia (34th), Brunei (35th), Thailand (47th), and Vietnam (63rd). With a very low R&D investment, we could hardly innovate.

Upon his assumption as DA Secretary last August, Dr. William Dar challenged the agency's workforce to undertake R&D activities that would contribute to the doubling of farmer's income(s).

He also warned the stakeholders of the corn industry to be ready in battling the fall armyworm if it invades the nation’s cornfields. This pest has already devastated the corn plants all around Asia.

Farming today has dramatically changed with the dwindling of the natural resource base now being utilized for a myriad of uses besides farming, increasing population, and climate change.

To feed its citizens, the Philippines cannot do otherwise but increase its investment in R&D.


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