The most immediate threat to the Philippine coconut industry is declining raw material supply. Almost all coconut oil mills are running below operating capacity and the prices of whole nuts, grated fresh coconut and buko in local markets are literally going through roof, all clear indications of dwindling supply.
Strong typhoons like Yolanda, Pablo, and last year, Glenda, exact heavy toll on coconut stands. But the more pervasive cause of declining supply is the inexorable phenomenon of aging. Of the 3.5 million hectares planted to coconuts, about 30% are over 60 years old and are described by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) as senescent, unproductive and due for replanting.
With farmer income from coconut so low, the temptation is great to cut down the coconut trees; generate instant cash from coco lumber, and replace the coconut with more profitable tree crops like coffee, cacao, bananas, citrus, pineapple, papaya and many other fruits.
COCONUT-BASED FARMING SYSTEMS
But that need not be the future scenario for the Philippine rural economy. In saline coastal areas which we have plenty of and which are expected to further increase due to rising sea levels with global warming, nothing grows better than coconut. Besides Philippine beaches will lose their allure to tourists without majestic coconut palms framing the horizon.
And for the upland, hilly areas the better scenario is coconut interspersed with these other high value crops. A multi-layered vegetation with coconut providing the top canopy is best for the capture and conversion of the energy from the sun into biomass (photosynthesis) which is the foundation of the whole civilization of agriculture.
Coconut-based farming system which is actually a form of agro-forestry is closest to the ideal of a tropical forest environment for soil, water and biodiversity conservation.
And with a variety of produce to sell all-year round, the farmers are buffered from the unpredictable ups and downs of the market.
HIGH YIELDING HYBRIDS FOR GREATER PRODUCTIVITY
But we have to start with the productivity of the coconut tree itself. Our national average productivity is less than 1.0 ton copra per hectare per year. Our existing land raises like Laguna Tall variety with good care can produce 2–3 tons copra per hectare per year. On the other hand, the 15 coconut hybrids developed and released by PCA have yield potentials of 4–6 tons copra per hectare per year.
In addition, the PCA hybrids possess the additional advantages of early fruiting (3–4 years versus 6–8 years for open pollinated, native varieties); semi-dwarf growth habit which facilitate harvesting, and relatively high content of medium chain fatty acids (6–12 carbon fatty acids) which are more healthful than those from competitive vegetable oils.
WHERE WILL THE COCONUT HYBRIDS COME FROM?
The PCA stations in Zamboanga, Davao, Bohol, and Aurora at best can produce a million hybrid seedlings each year, good for 10,000 hectares per year. At this rate of hybrid availability, it will take us 100 years just to replant the current estimated one million hectares of senescent (overaged) coconuts.
The obvious solution is to mobilize the small coconut farmers themselves and interested corporate investors to specialize in commercial coconut hybrid seed production.
The process for producing coconut hybrids is quite simple but very labor intensive. The key operation is emasculation i.e. manually picking off the male flowers to prevent self-pollination. Botanically speaking, the coconut is monoecious. The pistils (female) and stamens (male) organs are borne on separate flowers on the same plant. However, because the male flowers are very numerous and are produced all year round, emasculation although easy to do is very time consuming.
After the male flowers are plucked out, the female buttons are allowed to develop and be naturally pollinated with pollen of nearby tall coconut trees by wind and by insects.
In order to improve seed setting, pollen grains can be collected from nearby tall palms and pollen grains from desirable male parents provided by PCA can be manually dusted on the stigmas of receptive female buttons.
WHO WILL PAY FOR THE COCONUT HYBRIDS?
Actually the coconut hybrids, have already been paid for by the farmers. A good part of the Coco Levy Funds (CLF) were imposed on farmers specifically for the establishment of the hybrid coconut farm in Bugsuk Island in Palawan, which has since been neglected.
In fairness to Danding Cojuangco, as early as in the 1970s, he had the foresight of recognizing that the future of the Philippine coconut industry from a technology point of view was in hybrids. The fly in the ointment was the business model.
Since coconut hybrid production is very labor intensive and the bigger part of the cost of hybrids are transport and grow out in the nursery, a centralized hybrid seedling production system is inefficient and risky. The alternative business model of a national network of small coconut hybrid producers strategically dispersed in all major coconut growing provinces is the way forward. This business model is more equitable, more efficient in the long run and more resilient versus natural disasters like floods, strong winds, drought as well as from pest and disease outbreaks.
The genetic integrity of the hybrid seedlings will be closely supervised by PCA technicians. With phenotypic markers in place like leaf petiole color, separating the hybrids from the self-pollinated nuts should be straightforward.
All hybrid seed nuts produced by the certified seed growers will be contracted for and paid for by PCA using coco levy funds. They will be distributed free to farmers with priority given to typhoon devastated areas as well as those plantations beyond their prime. However, the final cost of growing out the seedlings in nurseries will be borne by the farmer-beneficiaries themselves.
TIME TO FINALLY RELEASE COCO LEVY FUNDS
Coconut farmers have waited long enough. The President has fulfilled his promise to the militant coconut farmers who marched all the way from Mindanao to Malacañang last year. He has issued two executive orders last March 2015 prescribing the manner by which the CLF will be pooled, conserved for posterity and effectively utilized for the benefit of the coconut farmers and coconut industry.
Unfortunately, the government is still unable to touch the CLF for the benefit of the legitimate beneficiaries because of a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court in response to petitions by certain quarters.
It is time to move on and get the coconut industry moving. It is never too early to plan and implement long-term solutions to long running social and economic problems. For the modernization of the coconut industry which is not only competitive but also equitable, hybrid coconuts are solid foundations to build upon. As the usual lament on Philippine governance goes, it is only matter of political will. The fervent hope of coconut farmers is that they do not have to wait for another year before the Supreme Court resolves the TRO nor for another political administration.
Source: Dr. Emil Q. Javier (September 25th 2015)