Thursday, July 7, 2016

DA chief eyes advanced rice technologies to boost farmer productivity and income

Philippine Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol (center) receives seeds of
climate-smart rice from Dr, Tolentino (left) during his visit.
LOS BAÑOS, Laguna, Philippines—True to his mission of making food available and affordable to all Filipinos, as well as improve the lives of farmers—especially in challenging upland areas—Emmanuel Piñol, new secretary of the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA), visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) on 6 July.

Piñol was most concerned in ensuring that the advances in rice production achieved through IRRI’s research reach farmers "so we can focus on food production and poverty alleviation,” referring to the pronouncements of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. "This is the main thrust of the Duterte Administration's agriculture program."

Piñol received an overview of IRRI and its existing collaborative projects with the DA and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) from IRRI Deputy Directors General V. Bruce J. Tolentino and Jackie Hughes.  Also briefing the DA team were Donna Casimero, Michele Weldon, Sarah Beebout, Roland Buresh, Alice Laborte, Rowena Castillo, and Mary Jean Du.

The Food Staples Sufficiency Program (FSSP), which was launched in 2011, includes seven components: the Philippine Rice Information System (PRISM), a web-based tool called Rice Crop Manager (RCM), better extension service through the Project IPaD, development of new varieties in the NextGen project, diffusion of associated technologies in rainfed areas, benchmarking of the Philippine rice economy, and preservation and promotion of heirloom rice varieties in the Cordilleras and in the uplands of Alamada and Banisilan in Arakan Valley of North Cotabato.

"My experiences as a local government executive actually brought me to the mountainous areas in my province," shared Piñol. "This is where poverty is. If only families living in upland areas could produce enough rice for their needs then, perhaps, we'll be able to alleviate poverty in these areas. I'm really interested; maybe it's not for commercial reasons, but just for subsistence.”

Recognizing the threats of La Niña and the recent El Niño, Piñol also stressed the importance of establishing food centers in critical areas of the country with enough supplies to last at least 6 months.

Heirloom rice varieties
In the ongoing FSSP partnership, IRRI works with DA regional field offices and local government units in the Cordilleras and Region XII to help upland farmers not only conserve traditional rice varieties but also connect them with high-value markets such as restaurants that operate locally and abroad.

"The Heirloom Rice Project (HRP) not only helps preserve and promote Filipino cultural identity, but it also aims to improve the quality of life of Filipino farmers economically and socially," said Dr. Nollie Vera Cruz, project leader.

Engr. Martin Gummert, head of the postharvest unit at IRRI, shared several postharvest technologies with the Secretary during his visit. These included the Superbag, a durable plastic bag designed to keep grains dry and safe from moisture, as well as insects, rats, and molds. He also demonstrated the solar bubble dryer (SBD) that dries grains inside a plastic dome to protect them from rain. The SBD can dry grains to a moisture level of 10–13%, depending on the weather conditions—dry or wet. It can also run on solar power, when needed. Other technologies that were showcased included a transplanter, drum seeder for sowing pregerminated rice, combine harvester, among others.

Water conservation
Piñol also took notice of a simple perforated plastic pipe that can be used by farmers to alternately wet and dry fields. He remarked that, for decades, the Philippine irrigation program has been focused on mega projects that take 15–20 years to complete but then only irrigate 10,000–15,000 hectares. Instead, he wants to focus on establishing quick communal irrigation projects that are also environment-friendly

"Building irrigation projects starting now will take us 15 years to complete," he said. "Because our population is growing at 1.9% per annum and our irrigation program only adds about 50,00–60,000 hectares a year, that's not going work."

Piñol noted that the country squanders many of its resources, the most important of which is water. "We are a country with six months of rain, typhoons, and flooding. Then there are three months of dry spell when we cry for water," he said. "We really need somebody to help us come up with a good plan to conserve water. We need a program on how to preserve La Niña water for the coming season."  
Climate-smart varieties
Dr. Gina Vergara, who leads the NextGen project, discussed varieties that can withstand stresses brought about by climate change such as drought, flooding, and salinity. The DA Secretary asked if these varieties were already available. She reported that two flood-tolerant varieties developed by IRRI have been released by the National Seed Industry Council but breeding materials for stagnant flooding are still being evaluated in field trials.
Genetic conservation
Piñol also toured the International Rice Genebank (IRG), where he asked if it would be possible to obtain seeds of Dinorado, Azucena, and other traditional varieties for seed production.

IRG manager Flor de Guzman replied that the seeds are available to anyone upon request and are free of charge. Currently, the IRG holds about 7,800 accessions of Philippine rice varieties, about 40% of them being IRRI-developed.

Crop management
In addition to the IRG and a briefing of the PRISM and RCM projects under the FSSP, Piñol also toured the Long-Term Continuous Cropping Experiment (LTCCE), where the institute has been able to sustainably cultivate three rice crops annually for nearly 55 years.

Keen on getting technologies into the hands of farmers, Sec. Piñol stressed how he wanted to expand the current program for agricultural extension workers in the country.

Director Edmund Sana of the DA National Rice Program agreed with the secretary that any technology is useless when it is not in farmer's hands.

"Last Monday, we did an assessment and we are already planning for the roll out," reported Sana. "This program will have to be expanded further to support the rice production enhancement program that we will be undertaking to ensure rice self-sufficiency.”

Sana explained that the agricultural extension workers in Project IPaD are not only being trained exclusively on the technology of rice production. "The first module involves values transformation. The second one is on enterprise development because extension workers need to look at farming as an enterprise. We don't just recommend that farmers plant rice from A to Z, but they also have to make money while doing it."

Dr. Tolentino explained that IRRI, as a research agency, is mandated to come up with ideas and to test or validate them. However, it cannot directly bring technologies to farmers because its mission is global.

In addition to officials from the DA and PhilRice, Piñol’s party also included officials from National Irrigation Administration, the Department of Interior and Local Government, among others.

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