6 phytoremediation tree species identified by ERDB for Palawan mercury mine’s rehab

November 30, 2020

By Melody Mendoza Aguiba

Six forest tree species have been identified by the Ecosystem Research and Development Bureau (ERDB) as “phytoremediation” tool to rehabilitate the mercury-polluted Palawan Quicksilver Mines (PQM) as part of an aim to transform it into an ecotourism site.

   The tree species are eyed to reduce movement of soil contaminants to the groundwater and to the bay. These will stabilize the soil as contaminants are absorbed by the trees’ roots.

   The six forest species are Molave (Vitex paviflora); Narra (Pterocarpus indicus)); Ipil (Instia bijuga); Bani (Pongomia pinnata ; Nato (Palaquium luzoniense; and Balayong (Cassia nodosa).

   “These plants can quickly absorb chemicals in the abandoned site.  The pit has very high volume of very lethal mercury. Every time  it rains, the contaminated water runs to the bay (Honda Bay) in Puerto Princesa.  We’re now working on a research on these plants’ use to absorb the chemicals,” said ERDB Director Henry A. Adornado in a biotechnology forum.

   Phytoremediation is the use of green plants to clean up contaminants in the environment without necessarily removing the contaminants directly.

ERDB staff in phytoremediation work in Palawan mercury mine

   ERDB, its Agroforestry Research, Development and Extension Center (ARDEC), is implementing the project with Mines and Geosciences Bureau until 2023.  By then, the abandoned mine will have been transformed into  an ecotourism and research destination in Puerto Princesa City.

   “Phytostabilization using forest trees has been suggested as a cost-efficient, socially acceptable, sustainable, and ecologically-sound solution to remediate heavy metal-contaminated areas. It is ideal to use forest trees because they produce high biomass that serves as storage for contaminants being absorbed and provide aesthetic value  to the area,” according to ERDB.

   The PQM operated from 1953 to 1976 in Barangay Sta. Lourdes producing 2,900 tons of mercury and 2,000,000 tons of mine-waste calcines (retorted ore).

   Unfortunately, this was the era when government has not yet adopted  policies on mine rehabilitation.   The prevailing Philippine Mining Act has now mandated mining companies to fund in advance the future rehabilitation of a mine while still operating.

   Initial field planting in observation plots was conducted in October 2019.

  The phytoremediation project has received initial success as all the six forest tree species had a 90 to 94% mean survival rate. 

   Neverthless, Narra and Molave performed with an even promising mean growth increment in terms of height and diameter.

   The sample collection for the plant-tissue and rhizospheric soil and their analysis are scheduled before the end of this year. The samples will determine plants’ capability to do actual phytostabilization work that will prevent contaminants’ movement to the bay water and groundwater.

   “Other parameters such as soil, total mercury and plants’ total accumulated mercury are needed to determine the potential of the test-plants for phytostabilization,” said ERDB

   Metallophytes and hyperaccumulators—plants that can grow and withstand high heavy metal presence in the soil will also be introduced in the area.

   One million trees are initially eyed to be planted in Barangay Sta. Lourdes.  It is part of a proposal of Puerto Princesa City local government unit to plant Balayong trees in the project area.

   The rehabilitation work of PQM will also involve earthworks (topsoil capping, benching for the slope stabilization, additional landscaping); perimeter lightings with underground wiring;  construction of three-meter wide concrete pathway and fence to contain the 60 meter-wide abandoned national road; installation of water system; repainting of existing inner and outer fence; and construction of driveway parking, guard house, and mini-information center building.

   The MGB and Puerto Princesa’s City Engineering office will be part of the implementation of the infrastructure works under a P10 million fund they are allocating.

   MGB earlier funded with P15 million the first phase of rehabilitation of the PQM mine. This involved the isolation of the area with the construction of outer and inner fences within the identified 20-40 meters buffer zone/easement of the pit lake.

   Earlier vegetation work has been done by introducing carabao grass, bamboo, and other ornamental plants. 
   However, rehabilitating the abandoned mine needs an even more important task of cleaning up of mercury-laden soil which is hoped to be done through the contaminant-absorbing tree species.

   Aquatic and terrestrial biota sampling are also being conducted.  It is carried out along with sediment sampling, research on the health effects of mercury, and a series of information drive and dialogues with partner agencies and mining companies operating in the province.

   The abandoned mine has become a health and environmental hazard in the community.

   Its operation  resulted in  heavy metal contamination in the soil and sediments of the surrounding natural environment.

   Mercury concentration  in the soil,  at 1.04-67.5 milligram (mg), was found to be elevated compared to global background of 0.045-0.16 mg.

   River sediments had 1.8-119 mg, and marine sediments had 0.04-12.7 mg.

   “The mercury  in marine sediments was caused by the erosion of mine waste calcines near the pit lake, and calcines used to construct a wharf at the nearby Honda Bay. Mine wastes represent the largest source of mercury contamination in the area, due to the low efficiency of the recovery process during calcination,” according to a study led by Jessie Samaniego.

   Because of its impact to marine environment and the health of the surrounding community, the mercury mine has been known as a waste hotspot of the world.

Credit XDD Environmental

   Studies since 1994 indicated that population in the area had high mercury concentration  in their hair and blood samples above the recommended exposure of 20 parts per billion.

   They complained of symptoms including miscarriages, tooth loss, muscle weakness, paralysis, anemia, tremors.

   “Department of Health (DOH) reports say that 33–40% of the 10,000 combined Tagburos and Sta. Lourdes residents have ‘chronic mercury poisoning’ from the exposure to mine tailings and ingestion of marine products with high mercury content,” reported Samaniego along Cris Reven Gibaga , Alexandria Tanciongco and Rasty Rastrullo. (Melody Mendoza Aguiba)

AI-driven drone revolutionizes PH rice farming; Bayer demonstration in Paniqui, Tarlac completed

November 27, 2020 – Artificial intelligence-driven drone has started revolutionizing Philippines’ rice farming n as Bayer Crop Science (BCS) completed a “drone seeding” demonstration in Paniqui, Tarlac that is significantly eliminating costly and time-consuming labor in rice planting.

A technology demonstration completed by BCS in Brgy. Sampot last November 20 has shown the success of using drone to broadcast (‘sabog tanim’) rice seeds. Sabog tanim or direct seeding is a method of sowing rice seeds.

The drone seeder is being received enthusiastically by Filipino farmers in Central Luzon as it substantially cuts labor and cost of direct seeding. The drone seed spreading service fee is being placed at only P3,000 per hectare for Bayer Arize farmer-customers.

Labor cost for transplanting rice traditionally costs P11,000 to P13,000 per hectare.

Instead of a whole day to do direct seeding in one hectare, drone seeding for the same area can be completed in only 30 minutes. Based on the conducted trial, seeding rate is 20 to 25 kilos of hybrid rice seeds per hectare, which is far less than the 40-50 kilos seeding rate in the manual sabog tanim, indicating effective seed distribution.

“We are preparing farmers for a complete package of smart technology. We can now use the drones to support agriculture modernization. Other countries in Southeast Asia have started to use drones in farming, including Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, It’s already used extensively in China,” said Aaron Cano, BCS new business activation manager during the technology demonstration. “This is the future of farming. We are opening an opportunity for the youth to get interested in farming.”

BCS has started setting up a “one-stop-shop” for farmers to bring a complete service of hardware, apps, and inputs—high yielding Arize hybrid rice seeds and crop protection products.

“We’re developing that model right now—a complete service that goes beyong distribution of farm inputs. Down the road, we’ll also look at other hardware and applications that collect relevant data on climate, weather, and plant health to be provided regularly to farmers,” said Cano.

New Hope Corp. (NHC) Founder/Director Anthony Tan said NHC, which distributes drones in the Philippines, has already been licensed by the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) to use drones for spraying application. However, approvals for specific crop protection products that can be applied using drones have yet to be realized. This is where BCS is working to ensure regulatory compliance with FPA guidelines for priority products and crops.

Bayer holds technology demonstration on drone seeding in Paniqui, Tarlac

A sprayer, much as the broadcaster, is an attachment of the drone that enables farmers to conveniently spray pesticides or other granulated materials on their plants.

The Department of Agriculture (DA), particularly Region 3 under Director Crispulo G. Bautista, has already adopted a drone technology program. “We are scheduled to have a technology demonstration in mid-December in Candaba, Pampanga. We are also providing other venues for demo. Those who want to request us to hold demo in their place may just contact us,” said Shiela Hipolito DA Region 3 Rice Program Manager.

Cano added that BCS is introducing a web-based app called Agrolink. Bayer Arize rice seeds users just have to sign up an account to access Agrolink. Through this integrated Smart Farming program, farmers are given points from purchases that they can acculmuate to get discounts and likely include the drone services.

“All the data we’re going to get will be part of an integrated agriculture—a complete, integrated solution for smallholder farmers is what we’re aiming for to boost their yields and incomes,” said Cano.

For now, Tan said the drone’s seed broadcasting service will initially be carried out in partnership with Bayer’s Arize seeds. “We’ve been successful in testing the technology with Bayer’s Arize rice seeds. We find comfort in this partnership since we have been testing this for two years,” Tan said.

“Any new technology goes through trial and error stage,” Tan added. “That is what the drone technology has hurdled under the partnership between NHC and BCS. The collaboration successfully proved that Arize hybrid seeds can be utilized efficiently using drones in certain soil types. 

First, farmers have to prepare Arize hybrid rice seeds by soaking in water for 12 to 18 hours with Gaucho seed treatment. Next, the seeds are incubated for 18 hours. Afterwards, the rice seeds are loaded on drones for aerial distribution and seeding. The seeds shouldn’t have shoots so it can freely be dropped to the soil by the drone. Seed treatment with Gaucho prevents birds and other pests like preying on the seeds for up to 30 days.

The drone, registered with the Civil Aviation Authority of the PHilippines (CAAP), has a weight of 25 kilos and a rice seed loading capacity of 10 kilos. Drone pilots are also registered by CAAP.

Good seeding has also been observed when land preparation has been done properly. For now, the introduction of the drone seeding service will be focused in Central Luzon, Philippines’ rice granary.

“We want to put farmers at ease with the technology. A lot of farmers in Iloilo have been pressing us on the supply of the drones, but these have to be scheduled,” Tan said. While direct seeding has been known to be less productive than transplanting (producing seedling first then transferring these to permanent locations), transplanting is laborious, costlier, and takes a longer time to complete.

“You can’t expect different results from doing the same thing. With drones, we do things very differently. First, the seeds should be quality seeds. The choice of farmer is to transplant hybrid seeds, but now, there’s a new hope with Bayer’s proposition on automated drone technology,” said Tan.

Within just one day, 20 hectares may be planted with the seeds using drones versus 1 hectare if done manually. The drone distributes rice seeds aerially from an altitude of 2.5 meters at a speed of one meter per second. 

As a single drone would cost around P1 million which are out of reach for most farmers, NHC plans to provide the service at a reasonable fee for farmers within selected communities.

The Tarlac government is also supporting the supply of drones to its farmers. “Rep. Charlie Cojuangco wants average rice yield of Tarlac farmers to increase to more than five tons per hectare. We just finished just one techno-demo first, and maybe we will add more techno demos to introduce the technology to farmers,” said Ar-ar Molic, Carlos O. Cojuangco Foundation project manager. Melody Mendoza Aguiba

Plant breeders urged to use genomics to fast-track development of crops with superior traits

November 19, 2020

By Melody Mendoza Aguiba

The Philippines should tap genomics to develop crops with “novel traits” and rich nutrition content such as as Golden Rice which solves blindness-causing Vitamin A deficiency with its pro-betacarotene content hitting 14 parts per million (PPM) through “gene transformation.”

   The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) has pressed plant breeders to use the technology that makes use of gene transformation to fast-track development of crops. That with superior traits such as that of pro betacarotene-rich Golden Rice.

   Golden Rice, just awaiting go-signal to be released to the market anytime, has hit pro-betacarotene (Vitamin) A rich level of 14 PPM compared to zero Vitamin A content for non-Golden Rice. PPM stands for parts per million.

Human genome mapping in 1986 started a revolution in systems biology including crop development; Credit: Natl Genome Research Institute

   Effectively, it is averting blindness for up to 500,000 children who go blind yearly due to Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD).  VAD also affects immunity and increased mortality among children in the developing world including Philippines.

   Such efficacy in significant nutrition supplementation holds true too for “Zinc rice” which has reached a level of 25 to 51 PPM zinc content from zero. And “Iron rice” has likewise already reached the target at 12 to 15 PPM iron content from zero.

   These crops are among the desperately needed by end-consumers.

   Meeting such market’s needs should be the focus of genomics—an interdisciplinary field that revolutionized research in many fields — and of systems biology that started in human genome’s mapping in 1986.

   “Most important for us is genetic gain– the difference genomics gives to a new product from the original. If you have molecular markers for gene editing, that’s where you increase (and fast-track) selection (of a plant variety) with accuracy.  That  reduces  breeding cycle and product development time. You could see the genetic gain,” said Dr. Glenn B. Bregorio, SEARCA director.

   Gregorio himself was a plant breeder for 29 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and at hybrid vegetable producer East West Seeds.

   “I  am a plant breeder, and I’m very familiar with (molecular) marker-assisted selection.  As I get older, I realize the importance of sales, of commercialization. We should have market-aided selection so that our selection for traits should be based on the market, not only markers (molecular markers). There should always be a business component in everything we do,” Gregorio said.

Breeding with genetic selection fast-tracks development of crops with superior trait

   Breeding costs can be reduced by 32% and is even faster using genomics, he said.

   Molecular markers of desired traits in genes — identifying targeted novel or superior traits in plants — have played a huge role in fast-tracking crop development since the human genome mapping started in 1990. 

   Such desired genes – disease resistance or high yield, for example–  are inserted into the “transformed” crop.  

C4 rice now has the yellow content representing the protein corn originally has

    Genomics, and other “omics” disciplines – eg. Metabolomics which studies metabolites in relation to precision medicine in metabolic diseases–  should have huge commercial function in the following according to Gregorio:

  1. Developing more cereals by up to 45% in 2030 and raising yield of rice by 2.5% increase yearly as in the 1970-1990 era in order to meet population food demand. Rice yield growth slowed down to 1% yield yearly from 1990 to 2011.
  2.  Developing more climate-smart products as the C4 rice (ongoing development) which has “photosynthesis-efficiency” as that of corn. That means C4 rice is more drought resistant and produced with half the irrigation water used in normal rice.  It  even has 50%  yield increase due to nitrogen efficiency.

“We have to copy what has been done in corn. Because of hybrid, because of GMO (genetically modified organism), corn increased productivity very fast,” said Gregorio. Super diet rice, corn, and vegetables; low-glycemic cereals; and crops with novel traits such as the blue rose.

3. Crops grown with low carbon footprint demanded in rich markets as Europe.

Melody Mendoza Aguiba

Farmers prefer mechanical dryers over just P5,000 temporary food aid

November 20, 2020 

Rather than a temporary food aid of P5,000 per farmer, farmers have pressed government to put up mechanical dryers for rice and corn which will have lasting benefit of raising the produce’s price per kilo and stretching their shelf life, enabling them to hedge on the stocks for a longer period.

   While not directly opposing the P5,000 food aid program approved under a Senate resolution, the Philippine Maize Federation (PMFI) asked government for a more beneficial investment—that of putting up rice and corn mechanical dryers.

   “We are not comfortable with the decision of government to impart the excess tariff collected from rice imports to farmers at P5,000 each.  We view this as if government is promoting our farmers’ state of mendicancy,” said PMFI President Roger Navarro

   PMFI, many of  whose members also plant rice and representing other farmers belonging to Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc (PCAFI), said Filipino farmers deserve more “dignity and respect.”

    Being a powerful investment tool, the money from excess rice tariff and whatever is approved by Congress under Bayanhan 2 should be used to empower farmers, according to PMFI.

   “More funds should be invested for long range and sustainable projects that farmers badly need which are the post harvest and storage facilities,” said Navarro.

   With higher quality dried corn and rice, farmers will be able to store their produce for a longer period of around one year. That enables them to trade on their rice and corn, hold them in storage and sell them when prices are higher compared to right when just harvested.

   The farmers particularly refer to mechanical dryers that enable them to meet the National Food Authority’s (NFA) quality for buying palay.  Paddy rice must have a moisture content of 14% so  NFA may buy it at a higher price by at least P1 per kilo compared to those not properly dried. For corn, ideal moisture content is 15.5%.

   While there is a substitute to mechanical dryers—concrete pavements or roads—these oftentimes render the product unclean with stones and other dirt.  Worse, these cannot be used when it is raining.

   “We can still see farmers drying their produce on the highways.  We must resolve this problem first and foremost. This is a basic fundamental infrastructure intervention support that government should do.  Or it will fail in its mandate and can therefore be charged for dereliction of duty,” said Navarro.

   PMFI also asserted government should  implement the Magna Carta for Small Farmers or Republic act 7607.

   “Government failed to implement price support mechanism both for rice and corn which NFA used to do before the Rice Tarrification Law.”

   The agriculture sector has been disappointed by government’s failure to implement the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) and its provisions.

   In their letter to Department of Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar, 58 farmers’ organizations led by Lawyer Jose Elias Inciong  of the United Broilers and Raisers Association and Danilo Fausto of DVF Dairy Inc. (also PCAFI president) cited what has not been implemented under AFMA:  

  1. Provision of responsive business information and trading services that link farmers to market
  2. Creation of a national marketing umbrella to generate highest income to farmers
  3. National Information Network (NIN) to be set up one year from AFMA’s enactment in 1997.

            The NIN should provide industry data, similar to that being produced extensively by the United States DA (USDA). USDA extensively studies and reports even Philippines’ industry data.

“The NIN shall provide information and marketing services related to agriculture and fisheries which shall include the following: supply; demand; price and price trends; product standards for both fresh and processed agricultural and fisheries products; directory of, cooperatives, traders, key market centers, processors and business institutions.”

The NIN should also provide research information and technology generated from research institutions; international, regional and local market forecasts;  and resource accounting data.

“The NIN shall likewise be accessible to the private sector engaged in agriculture and fisheries enterprises,“ according to Section 45.

   The farmers’ groups said that DA’s budget for 2001-2004, 2011-2017, and 2018-2023 have not been consulted with the agriculture sector at all despite AFMA’s provision for this to be implemented. 

Dar asked to hold consultation with farmers and not come up with its own self-conceived plan

November 9,2020

Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar was asked by a 58-signatory farmers’ groups to hold consultation with farmers and not come up with its own plans which has rendered failure in  implementing two-decade-old Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA).

   In a letter received on November 4 by DA, Dar was also asked by the 58 farmer-leaders to explain why  the Department of Agriculture (DA) refuses to implement trade remedies allowed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and local laws addressing import surges and price depressions.

   DA’s failure to consult farmers is precisely the reason why there is “misallocation and misuse” of DA funds.

   “The absence of consultations is at the heart  of misallocations and misuse of funds by DA,” said the United Broilers Raisers Assn, Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG), and more than 50 other farmer-leaders.

   “DA’s plans, given the results, are certainly not for the stakeholders.  The law mandates that stakeholders be consulted in the formulation and implementation of AFMA.”

   Consultation should include budget requests which should be subject to transparency.

   The farmers’ groups lamented the non-implementation of Sections 38 to 45 of AFMA. These are among the provisions DA failed to implement:

  1. Provision of responsive business information and trading services that link farmers to market
  2. Creation of a national marketing umbrella to generate highest income to farmers
  3. National Information Network (NIN) to be set up one year from AFMA’s enactment in 1997.

            The NIN should provide industry data, similar to that being produced extensively by the United States DA (USDA). USDA extensively studies and reports even Philippines’ industry data.

“The NIN shall provide information and marketing services related to agriculture and fisheries which shall include the following: supply; demand; price and price trends; product standards for both fresh and processed agricultural and fisheries products; directory of, cooperatives, traders, key market centers, processors and business institutions.”

The NIN should also provide research information and technology generated from research institutions; international, regional and local market forecasts;  and resource accounting data.

“The NIN shall likewise be accessible to the private sector engaged in agriculture and fisheries enterprises,“ according to Section 45.

   On Dar’s battlecry that DA has to engage in “New Thinking,” DA should now look into why other countries (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia) thrived despite their World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, the farmer-leaders said.

   On the other hand, Philippine agriculture reels into further poverty as imports flood the market and kill farmers’ livelihood.

   The farmers’ groups said that DA’s plans in 2001-2004, 2011-2017, and 2018-2023 have not been consulted with the agriculture sector.

   “We have only come to know these AFMA programs upon  discovery of counsel as part of due diligence in preparation of a case,” the 58 farmers’ group confessed.

   DA’s plans all the years were made simply as “paper compliance” with the requirement of the Department of Budget and Management.

   In professional budget management, the farmer-leaders said budgets should have “clear performance targets and quantifiable and verifiable impact indicators and conduct of up-to-date monitoring.”

   Absence of data is another reason why there is disconnect between farmgate and retail  prices.  This happens for instance in rice where farmgate price is now down to P10 per kilo.  But consumers still pay for a high P38 to P45 per kilo in wet markets.

   “How can DA effectively plan without a data and information system? What will be the basis for its plans? How can stakeholders plan investments base on the realities of the supply and demand in an industry?”

   The farmer-leaders lamented that AFMA’s other major provisions have not been implemented:

  1. Strategic Agriculture and Fisheries Development Zone
  2. Agro-industry Modernization and Credit Financing Program
  3. Irrigation and Agriculture and Fisheries INfrastructure Support SERvices
  4. Trade and Fiscal Incentives

   DA also did not receive at all the P20 billion initial AFMA allocation and P17 billion yearly at least for 6 years since AFMA’s enactment.

   “You have spoken of rebooting the industry. The first step is to follow the law and implement AFMA,” said the 56 farmer-groups to Dar in a letter. “That is the only way to effectively gain the trust and respect of stakeholders.” Melody Mendoza Aguiba