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Agri research key to inclusive growth

CONSIDER the following exotic names: Aromatic coconut, giant santol, guapple, monthong durian, honey jackfruit J33, PB360 rubber, cacao UF18, and MG/MD pineapple. They are preferred clones of agriculture crops. They did not come from nowhere.

Products of investments in research and development (R&D), many of these are found in the Philippines, but their origins are from other countries: Aromatic coconut, giant santol and monthong are from Thailand; jackfruit J33 and PB360 rubber are from Malaysia; cacao UF18 is from Costa Rica; and MD and MG pineapple are from Hawaii.

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R&D is about improving yields, attaining better quality, shortening immaturity periods, lengthening shelf life, reducing costs, developing new clones or varieties, and achieving pest and disease resistance. It improves the food supply and nutrition, creates jobs and increases farmers’ incomes. These effects result in more inclusive growth as more benefit from increased production, especially the poor.

Various studies have shown that R&D can impact productivity and food supply significantly.

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Peter Hazel, an international expert on R&D, asserted that the breeding of improved rice and wheat varieties, combined with the expanded use of inputs, irrigation, and supportive public policies, led to dramatic yield and production increases in Asia beginning in the late 1960s. In 20 years, cereal production doubled and per capita income increased by 190 percent, improving the livelihood of an estimated 1.8 billion people in rural Asia.

Li Xin and Yuan, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) researchers, cited the efforts of plant scientists, seed producers, extension agents and farmers, making China the first country to develop and commercialize hybrid rice.

With yields that exceed other varieties by 15 to 31 percent, hybrid rice has allowed China to feed an additional 60 million people a year, while reducing the land allocated to rice production by 14 percent since 1978. Hybrid rice is cultivated on 63 percent of land in China.

Another IFPRI report claimed that zero-tillage cultivation techniques among Argentine farmers contributed to a significant increase in the global supply of soybean. Zero-tillage is a way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil. The use of zero-tillage, along with the introduction of soybean varieties, improved soil fertility by reversing decades of erosion and created some 200,000 new agricultural jobs.

Still another IFPRI report in 2009 claimed that the genetic improvement of tilapia (GIFT) served as a launching pad for finfish genetic improvement around the world. Based on selective breeding, GIFT succeeded in producing tilapia that grows faster with a high survival rate, thus increasing fish yields dramatically. Between 1990 and 2007, tilapia production in the Philippines expanded by 186 percent, while production costs fell by up to 35 percent.

In the Philippines, R&D appears to have weak support in the halls of government and lawmakers due to its long gestation and limited public visibility.

“Government investment during the last 40 years has been consistently below the minimum level recommended by the World Bank for developing countries to sustain agriculture growth, which is 1 percent of the gross value added (GVA) in agriculture,” said Dr. Eliseo Ponce, a noted agriculture policy expert. “As a consequence, research programs have suffered from low budget which, in turn, resulted in deteriorating R&D infrastructure, especially critical upstream laboratories, and an inadequate cadre of highly trained researchers. This has been exacerbated by the inability of the country to develop a unified or highly integrated agriculture and fisheries research system. In the Asean countries, the Philippines has perhaps the most fragmented system.”

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Exceptions are the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the Philippine Carabao Center, as well as the private but now heavily underfunded Philippine Sugar Research Institute. They have developed new technologies to enhance rice, carabao milk and sugarcane productivity.

By contrast, there is limited (or none at all) research program for coconut (the largest crop in farm area), rubber, coffee, cacao, jackfruit and banana. The private sector has greatly contributed to bringing in new clones and technologies to the Philippines: Cavendish bananas from Central America, pineapples from Hawaii, rubber from Malaysia, and palm oil from Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica and Thailand.

There are research institutions in the world which the Philippines can emulate:

Brazil. Since 1973, the Brazilian Agriculture Research Corp. (Embrapa) has generated over 9,000 technologies for agriculture, reduced production costs, and increased food supply. It is the leading center for tropical agriculture research in the world.

Embrapa has 38 research centers and is present in almost all states, each with its own ecological conditions. It has over 2,000 area researchers, 1,600 of whom having doctoral degrees. It coordinates the national agricultural research system, which includes most public and private entities involved in agricultural research in the country.

Malaysia. The pioneering work of the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM) has had an impact on the local natural rubber industry and those of other countries. Quality planting materials determine the profitability of rubber plantation. RRIM produced many clones, such as RRIM 600, RRIM 928, RRIM 3001, PB 260, and PB 350. Some have found their way to the Philippines. In addition, the Malaysian Agriculture Research Development Institute has made significant progress in tropical fruits, such that the lowly star fruit (balimbing) is now a major tropical export.

Thailand. The Rubber Research Institute of Thailand, with headquarters in Bangkok, operates five research centers to address different agro-ecological zones. It has developed two productive rubber clones, RRIT 251 and RRIT 408. The country is the world’s leading natural rubber exporter. It is also a leading player in sugar, cassava, processed fruits, shrimp and chicken meat.

Vietnam. The Western Highlands of Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute (Wasi) is an agency under the Vietnam Agricultural Science Institute. Wasi, established in 1997, is a consolidation of the coffee research institute, mulberry research center, and related scientific research offices, such as pepper and macadamia. Wasi has developed coffee hybrids with maximum farmer’s yield of up to 4 kilograms of beans per tree. Vietnam is the world’s leading robusta and pepper supplier.

“Agriculture research does not happen overnight. In order to have a long-term impact, there must be sustained budget support to develop and continuously upgrade its laboratories especially for upstream and strategic research and scientific personnel,” Ponce said.

Development of R&D human resources means educating the most promising young Filipino scientists in the best universities in the world. There must also be opportunities for researchers to undertake postdoctoral studies abroad. For tree crops, the Philippines is not there in the league. The coconut research program of PCA is not at par, in terms of investment and human resources, with other dedicated institutes or research centers.

IFPRI found that the Philippines had one of the largest agricultural research systems in Asia in 2002. However, in terms of agricultural research spending, the Philippines ranks behind Asian countries such as Malaysia. Public agricultural R&D in the Philippines is heavily reliant on government sources for support. In 2002, the Philippine government provided more than 85 percent of funding to the government agencies.

In 2013, the agriculture GVA reached P1,297 billion. At 1 percent, the calculated agriculture R&D budget could have been P13 billion. In 2012, according to the Bureau of Agriculture Research, the government R&D budget was P1.5 billion. Due to low investment, the country needs to tap other countries that have succeeded in making technological advances. This had been shown in the adoption of zero-tillage cultivation. Another way is to acquire good plant varieties from more advanced countries through closer bilateral and multilateral collaborations.

“The challenge is that, on top of increasing the R&D budget, there is the lack of focus of many Philippine R&D institutions, particularly the proliferating state college and universities. They have to be rationalized, to achieve the critical mass of cadre of researchers,” said Fermin Adriano, a noted political economist.

Agriculture research has a very high rate of social return. An estimate of the median of the rate of return is 48 percent a year for research, according to IFPRI. A hurdle rate of 15 percent is good enough.

Agricultural research has proven itself effective at increasing farm productivity, enhancing product quality, and reducing costs, along with providing spillovers in manufacturing and services. The resulting job creation is part of the outcome of inclusive growth. The Philippines certainly needs a coherent research agenda in the next 20 years.

(This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is vice chair of MAP agribusiness and countryside development committee, and executive director of Center for Food and AgriBusiness of University of Asia & the Pacific. Feedback at <[email protected]> and < [email protected]>. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)

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