Tuesday, June 28, 2011

People's Green Revolution: Agribusiness and Biotechnology on the Village Level

Dr Abe V Rotor
Welcome to Living with Nature - School on Blog

Assignment: Communication and Change (Socio-cultural, economic and environment) Faculty of UST Arts and Letters. After reading this article, what biotechnology product is found nearest your place, or in your hometown? How does this particular commodity relate to the thrust of our subject? Please summarize. (Handwritten on regular bond, one page only).

This is also a lesson on Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's-School-on-Air) using the same article as guide. (DZRB 738 KHz AM Band, 8 to 9 o'clock in the evening, Monday to Friday www.pbs.gov.ph)

Mineral water is prepared by treating ordinary drinking water with malunggay seeds. Three or four crushed mature seeds are soaked for three hours to kill any germs and to allow particles to settle at the bottom. Transfer treated water into smaller bottles leaving behind the sediments. Place in ref to chill.

Home biotechnology products: padas (fish) bagoong,and peanut brittle. Manaoag, Pangasinan.

Home industry: rice cakes - patupat amd tupig (photos). Also suman, pinipig, tinubong, bucayo, bibingka. Natural yeast and other beneficial microorganisms extend shelf-life and improves taste. Vigan, Ilocos Sur

Basi table wine of the Ilocos Region sold in tourists shops. Basi is made from sugarcane, brewed and aged in earthen jars (burnay). San Vicente, Ilocos Sur

Cultured mushrooms: Shitake and Pleurotus. Tagaytay


Nature works silently through her invisible biological agents. We wake up to the fresh aroma of coffee, chocolate, vanilla, the cured taste of dried tapa, tinapa, ham and bacon – all these are products of a mysterious process we generally call fermentation. Aged wine is mellower, cured tobacco is more aromatic, naturally ripened fruits are sweeter, dried prunes, raisin and dates have higher sugar content and have longer shelf life. Why many foods taste better after allowing them to stand for sometime! Take suman, tupig, puto, bibingka, and the like. Thanks to the myriads of microorganisms working in our favor even while we are asleep.

The vast potential uses of microorganisms - bacteria, algae, fungi and the like - in providing food, medicine and better environment to supply the requirements of our fast growing population and standard of living are being tapped by biotechnology. Biotechnology hand in hand with genetic engineering will likely dominate the Green Revolution of this century – the fourth since Neolithic time. But will this be a Green Revolution for the people?

Biotechnology is not new

My father, a gentleman farmer, was a brewer. He inherited the trade from my grandfather and from previous generations. I still use today the good earthen jars in producing the same products – basi, the traditional Ilocos wine, and its by-product, natural vinegar - using the same indigenous formula.

The making of basi and vinegar, as well as a dozen other products of sugarcane, like panocha, pulitiput, kalamay, sinambong, and kinalti, is a traditional cottage industry in the Ilocos region which is traced back to the Pre-Hispanic era when hundreds of small independent brewers like my father lived comfortably on this once flourishing industry.

Things appeared simple then. But time has changed. We know that sugarcane has long been planted with rice, legumes and vegetables, but it sounds like new in modern parlance with terms like crop rotation or crop diversification. Making of wine, vinegar and confectionery products are under agro-industry. Because the process generates profit, we call this value-added advantage. So with the tax that is now slap manufactured products. To determine the business viability of a business we determine its internal rate of return (IIR) and its return on investment (ROI). Brewing today is agro-processing and an agribusiness. And my father would be called not just a proprietor or entrepreneur - but as a business partner since family members and relatives share in the operation of the business. Possibly his title today would be general manager or CEO.

Things in my father’s time have become outdated, shifting away from traditional to modern. But it is not only a matter of terminology; it is change in business structure and system.

Big business is name of the game

Like many other village industries, the local breweries bowed out to companies that now control the production of commercial and imported brands. The proliferation of many products and the inability of local products to keep up with the growing sophisticated market have further brought their doom. Definitely under such circumstances the small players under the business parameter of economics of scale find themselves at the losing end. Bigness is name of the game.

Monopolies and cartels now control much of the economy here and in other countries. Transnational companies have grown into giants, that one big company far outweighs the economy of a small country. Today agribusiness and biotechnology are corporate terms that are difficult to translate on the village level and by small entrepreneurs.

All these fit well into the present capitalistic system that is greatly under the influence of IMF-WB on borrower-countries, and terms of trade agreements imposed by GATT-WTO on its members, many of which reluctantly signed the its ratification. Under the capitalistic system there has been a shift of countryside industries into the hands of corporations, national and transnational. Take these examples.

Coffee is raised by millions of small farmers all over the world, but it is monopolized by such giant companies like Nestle and Consolidated Foods. Cacao is likewise a small farmer’s crop, but controlled by similar multinationals. So with tea, the world’s second most popular beverage.

Unfortunately this inequity in the sharing of the benefits of these industries is exacerbated by the absence of a strong and effective mass-based program that emphasizes countryside development through livelihood and employment opportunities. Multi-national monopolies thrive on such business climate and biased laws and program in their favor.

We import rice, corn, sugar, fruits, meat and poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables in both fresh and processed products, when in the sixties and seventies we were exporters of the same products. We were then second or third in ranking after Japan in terms of economic development.

“Small business is beautiful”

There must be something wrong somewhere. But while we diagnose our country’s ills, we should make references to our own successes, and even come to a point of looking on models within our reach and capability to emulate. There are “unsung heroes” in practically all fields from business, agriculture, manufacturing to folk medicine and leadership. Perhaps for us who belong to the older generation, it is good to feel whenever we recall old times when life was better – and better lived. For which, on the other side of the coin, we pose the present challenghe to the youth.

Let me cite particular areas of biotechnology in which small entrepreneurs play a vital role and which they have proven themselves successful in one way or the other.

The first group involves the production of alcoholic drinks and vinegar through fermentation.

These products are

Basi (sugarcane)
Lambanog (coconut)
Tuba (coconut)
Layaw (nipa)
Bahalina (coconut and tangal)
Fruit wine (kasoy, bignay, pineapple, etc.)
Vinegar (nipa, sugarcane, coconut, various fruits)

Vinegar from sugarcane brewed and seasoned in earthen jars or burnay. Bantay, Ilocos Sur

With readily available raw materials and simple tools used, brewing is a practical industry. More so, with the simplicity of fermentation itself which is the conversion of sugar into ethanol through fermentation with yeast. The brewed product is either consumed immediately or aged. Aging improves quality and lengthens the shelf life of the product. These home breweries are reminiscent of European vintages. It is said that the best wine in the world is not found in public bars and wine shops, but in private home cellars of Europe. It is true.

There, wine making is an art, and a personalized enterprise, with each cellar having a distinctive quality trademark. Bordeaux in France for example, is famous for brand, while the Scotch Whiskey remains a top grade liquor made from grains. Similarly we have Basi in Ilocos amd lambanog in Southern Tagalog, Bahalina in Eastern Visayas and Mindanao, Tapoy in the Cordilleras, which is Kampai in Japan. So with Apple cider compared to our own Sukang Iloko, or Sukang Paombong.

The second group of village biotechnology products are beverages, food condiments, tobacco and betel for chewing.

Kapeng barako (Batangas and Cavite)
Cacao (Batangas, Mindanao)
Vanilla (Mindanao)
Tsaa (Batangas)
Fruit puree (mango, guyabano, etc., Southern Tagalog, Mindanao)
Bagoong and patis (Navotas, Balayan, Dagupan)
Kesong Puti (Laguna)
Betel or Nganga (Cordillera, Laguna, Ilocos)
Ketsup (banana, tomato)
Rolled tobacco (Cagayan Valley, Ilocos)

Like in the first group, these products are area-specific which point out to their indigenous production and processing, so with their patronage. Rolled tobacco or pinadis, for example, has a special market for old people who are used to the product – and not to the younger generation. This is also true with betel or nganga.

On the other hand, bagoong and patis, which used to be a specialty among Ilocanos, are now marketed abroad. So with kapeng barako a local coffee which is mainly grown in the highlands of Batangas and Tagaytay. Fruit puree and fruit preserve, though relatively new, are amazingly growing fast, as people are shunning away from carbonated drinks. Because of high demand, these products became a boom to small growers, who recently are becoming mere conduits or raw products suppliers of big companies, instead of making and marketing the finished products themselves. Tea, coffee, fruit juice and chocolate, in this order, make up the world’s top beverages, thus pointing out the vast opportunities of biotechnology.

The third and largest group of village biotechnology products is in food.

Puto and Kutsinta or rice cake, very popular among Filipinos
Bibingka (rice)
Maja (corn grit)
Burong manggang paho, mustasa
Burong Isda (dalag and rice)
Hamon (manok, baboy, pato)
Tocino, longganisa
Itlog na pula and century egg
Balot and Penoy
Tokwa (bean curd)
Taosi (fermented black bean)
Talangka Paste
Pickles (papaya, carrot, ampalaya, onion, cucumber, etc.)
Toge (mungo sprout)
Cakes (banana, cassava)
Ripening of fruits (madre de cacao)

Food processing constitutes the bulk of village biotechnology in developing countries, on both domestic and commercial scales. Like in the other groups, these undertakings are seldom organized as formal establishments, but rather fall under the category of informal economics.

“The biggest piracy that is taking place today is not at sea and on the rich. It is stealing people’s resources – from herbal medicine to indigenous technology – stolen by rich countries and big corporations. Biopiracy and technopiracy constitute the greatest violation to human rights and social justice in that the people are not only deprived of their means of livelihood; they are forced to become dependent on those who robbed them.”

Informal or “underground” economy is the lifeblood of rural communities. They are the seat of tradition, rituals, barter and other informal transactions. They link the farm and the kitchen and the local market. They are versions of agro-processing and agribusiness on the scale of proprietorship and family business. They strengthen family and community ties.

Development Models on the Grassroots

It is for this reason that the NACIDA – National Cottage Industry Development Authority – was organized. And truly, it brought economic prosperity to thousands of entrepreneurs and families in the fifties to sixties. This concern for the common tao made Ramon Magsaysay the most loved president of the Philippines.

South Korea for one in the late sixties, saw our PRRM and NACIDA models and improved on them with their SAEMAUL UNDONG development program which ultimately brought tremendous progress in its war-torn countryside.

In Tanzania, one can glimpse similarities of our program with LAEDZA BATANI (Wake up, it’s time to get moving), a rural development program. The Philippines stood as an international model, recognized by the WB and ADB, for our countryside development – cottage industries, farmers’ associations, electric cooperatives, rice and corn production program, which made us agriculturally self-sufficient and net exporter of rice.

We developed biotechnology in farm waste utilization through composting with the use of Trichoderma inoculation, and in natural rice farming by growing Azolla in lieu of urea and ammonium nitrate. Another area of biotechnology is in the retting of maguey fiber, which is a work of decomposing bacteria. These and many other people-based approaches to development projected the image of then President Ferdinand Marcos among greatest nation builders like Mao Tse Tung, Chiang Kai Shek, Park Chung Hee, Dr Mahathir, Sukarno, Lee Kuan Yu, among others in the Western hemisphere - leaders who brought their respective countries out of the Thir World syndrome. There is but one abnd common denominator of progress in these countries, and that is development at the grassroots, or the so-called bottom-up development.

Today there are many opportunities of biotechnology that can be tapped and packaged for small and medium size businesses and organized groups of entrepreneurs and farmers. These opportunities also pose a big challenge to the academe and to enterprising researchers in government and private institutions.

Cultured tainga ng daga (Auricularia). It is a giant compared to the native species growing in the wild.

Important organisms for biotechnology

Spirulina (blue-green alga or Eubacterium) - high protein, elixir.
Chlorella (green alga) – vegetable, oxygen generator
Pleurotus and Volvariella (fungi, mushroom) – anti-cancer food.
Azolla-Anabaena (eubacterium with fern)– natural fertilizer
Porphyra, red seaweed, high-value food (“food of the gods”)
Hormophysa (brown alga) – antibiotics
Eucheuma (red alga) – source of carageenan, food conditioner
Gracillaria (brown alga) – source of agar, alginate
Sargassum (brown alga) – fertilizer and fodder
Saccharomyces (fungus, yeast) – fermentation
Aspergillus (fungus) – medicine, fermentation
Penicillium (fungus) – antibiotics
Caulerpa (green alga) – salad
Leuconostoc (bacterium) – nata de coco, fermentation of vegetables
Acetobacter (bacterium) – acetic acid manufacture
Rhizobium (bacterium) – Nitrogen fixer for soil fertility
Nostoc (BGA or Eubacterium) – bio-fertilizer
Ganoderma (tree fungus) – food supplement, reducer
Halobacterium and Halococcus (bacteria)- bagoong and patis making
Lactobacillus (bacterium) lactic fermentation, yogurt making
Candida (yeast) – source of lysine, vitamins, lipids and inveratse
Torulopsis (yeast) – leavening of puto and banana cake
Trichoderma (fungus) – innoculant to accelerate composting time.
Rhizobium resides inside these nodules attached to the roots of leguminous plants. This bacterium fixes inert N2 gas into soluble NO3 or nitrate which is then absorbed and used by plants.

Before I go proceed allow me to present a background of biotechnology in relation with the history of agriculture.

Three Green Revolutions

The First Green Revolution took place when man turned hunter to farmer, which also marked the birth of human settlement, in the Fertile Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the present war in Iraq is taking place.

The Second Green Revolution is characterized by the improvement of farming techniques and the expansion of agricultural frontiers, resulting in the conversion of millions of hectares of land into agriculture all over the world. This era lasted for some three hundred years, and marched with the advent of modern science and technology, which gave rise to Industrial Revolution. Its momentum however, was interrupted by two world wars.

Then in the second part of the last century, a Third Green Revolution was born. With the strides of science and technology, agricultural production tremendously increased. Economic prosperity followed specially among post-colonial nations - the Third World - which took the cudgels of self rule, earning respect in the international community, and gaining the status of Newly Industrialized Nations (NICs) one after another.

Towards the end of the last century, the age of biotechnology and genetic engineering arrived. Here the conventions of agriculture have been radically changed. For example, desirable traits are transferred through gene splicing so that trans-generic – even trans-kingdom – trait combination are now possible. Bt Corn, a genetically modified corn that carries the caterpillar-repelling gene of a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, exemplifies such case. Penicillin-producing microorganisms are not only screened from among naturally existing species and strains; they are genetically engineered with super genes from other organisms known for their superior production efficiency.

Biotechnology for people and environment

The need for food and other commodities is ever increasing. Together with conventional agriculture, biotechnology will be contributing significantly to the production of food, medicine, raw materials for the industry, and in keeping a balanced ecology. This indeed will offer relief to the following scenarios:

1. World’s population increases from today’s 8 billion to 10 billion well within 20 years.

2. Agricultural frontiers have virtually reached dead end.

3. Farmlands continue to shrink, giving way to settlements and industry,
while facing the onslaught of erosion and desertification

4. Pollution is getting worse in air, land and water.

5. Global warming is not only a threat; it is a real issue to deal with.

These scenarios seem to revive the Apocalyptic Malthusian theory, which haunts many poor countries - and even industrialized countries where population density is high. We are faced with the problem on how to cope up with a crisis brought about by the population-technology-environment tandem that has started showing its fangs at the close of the 20th century.

Now we talk in terms of quality life, health and longevity, adequate food supply and proper nutrition - other human development index (HDI), notwithstanding.


As scientists open the new avenue of genetic engineering to produce genetically modified organisms (GMO) for food, medicine and industry, entrepreneurs are shaping up a different kind of Green Revolution on the old country road – the employment of veritable, beneficial microorganisms to answer the basic needs of the vast majority of the world’s population.


Green Revolution for the masses

This Green Revolution has to be addressed to the masses. The thrust in biotechnology development must have a strong social objective. This must include the integration of the mass-based enterprises with research and development (R&D). Like the defunct NACIDA, a program for today should be cottage-based, not only corporate-based. Genetic engineering should be explored not for scientific reasons or for profit motives alone, but purposely for social objectives that could spur socio-economic growth on the countryside, and the improvement the lives of millions of people.

Alternative Food

These lowly organisms will be farmed like conventional crops. In fact, today mushroom growing is among the high-tech agricultural industries, from spawn culture to canning.

Spirulina, a cyanobacterium, has been grown for food since ancient times by the Aztecs in Mexico and in early civilizations in the Middle East. Its culture is being revived on estuaries and lakes, and even in small scale, in tanks and ponds. Today the product is sold as “vegetablet.”

Seaweeds, on the other hand, are being grown extensively and involving many species, from Caulerpa to Nori. Seaweed farming has caught worldwide attention in this last two decades, not only because it offers a good source of food, but also industrial products like carageenan and agar.

Environmental Rehabilitation

In the remote case that a nuclear explosion occurs, how possible is it to produce food and other needs in the bomb shelters deep underground? Fiction as it may seem, the lowly microorganisms have an important role. For one, mushrooms do not need sunlight to grow. Take it from the mushroom-growing termites. Another potential crop is Chlorella. While it produces fresh biomass as food it is also an excellent oxygen generator, oxygen being the by-product of photosynthesis. But where will Chlorella get light? Unlike higher plants, this green alga can make use of light and heat energy from an artificial source like fluorescent lamp.

Sewage treatment with the use of algae is now common in the outskirts of big cities like New York and Tokyo. From the air the open sewer is a series of reservoirs through which the sewage is treated until the spent material is released. The sludge is converted into organic fertilizer and soil conditioner, while the water is safely released into the natural environment such as a lake or river.

Marine seaweeds are known to grow in clean water. Their culture necessitates maintenance of the marine environment. Surprisingly seaweeds help in maintaining a clean environment, since they trap particles and detritus, and increase dissolved Oxygen and reduce dissolved CO2 level in water.

Bacteria being decomposers return organic substances to nature. So with algae and fungi. Fermentation is in fact, a process of converting organic materials into inorganic forms for the use of the next generation of organisms. In the process, man makes use of the intermediate products like ethyl alcohol, acetic acid, nata de coco, lactic acid, and the like.

Speaking of sustainable agriculture, take it from Nature’s biofertilizers like Nostoc and other Eubacteria. These BGAs form green matting on rice fields. Farmers in India and China gather this biomass, and use it as natural fertilizer. Another is Rhizobium, a bacterium that fixes atmospheric Nitrogen into NO3, the form of N plants directly absorb and utilize. Its fungal counterpart, Mycorrhiza, converts Nitrogen in the same way, except that this microorganism thrives in the roots of orchard and forest trees.

Let me cite the success of growing Azolla-Anabaena on ricefields in Asian countries. This is another biofertilizer, and discriminating consumers are willing to pay premium price for rice grown without chemical fertilizer - only with organic and bio-fertilizers.

At one time a good friend, a medical doctor and gentleman farmer, Dr. P. Parra, invited me to his Azolla farm in Iloilo. What I saw was a model of natural farming, employing biotechnology in his integrated farm –

Azolla for rice,
• Biogas from piggery,
Rhizobia innoculation for peanuts and mungbeans,
Trichoderma for composting.
• Food processing (fruit wine and vinegar)

His market for his natural farm products are people as far as Manila who are conscious of their health, and willing to pay the premium price for naturally grown food.

Genetic Engineering

It is true that man has succeeded in splicing the DNA, in like manner that he harnessed the atom through fission. and Hydrogen through fusion. Genetic engineering is a kind of accelerated and guided evolution, and while it helps man screen and develop new breeds and varieties, it has yet to offer the answer to the declining productivity of farms and agriculture, in general, particularly in developing countries. Besides, genetically engineered products have yet to earn a respectable place in the market and household.

Genetic engineering of beneficial organisms is the subject of research institutions all over the world. I had a chance to visit the Biotechnology Center in Taipei and saw various experiments conducted by Chinese scientists particularly on antibiotics production. But biotechnology has also its danger. One example is the case of the “suicide seeds”. These are hybrid seeds which carry a trigger enzyme which destroys the embryo soon after harvest so that the farmers will be forced to buy again seeds from the same supplier come next cropping season. It is similar to self-destruct diskettes, or implanted viruses in computers. This is how an international company Monsanto, the inventor of suicide seeds, is creating an empire built at the expense of millions of poor farmers over the world.

Medicine and Natural Food

As resistance of pests and pathogens continue to increase and become immune to drugs, man is corollarily searching for more potent and safe kinds and formulations. He has resorted to looking into the vast medicinal potentials of these lowly organisms, as well as their value as natural food. Here are some popular examples.

1. Nori or gamet (Porphyra, a red alga) – elixir,
claimed to be more potent than Viagra

2. Edible seaweeds - rich in iodine, vegetable substitute.
There is no known poisonous seaweed.

3. Seaweeds as source of natural antibiotics, much safer than conventional antibiotics.

4. Mushrooms have anti-cancer properties.

6. Cyanobacteria prolongs life, restores youthfulness.

7. Yeast is a health food

8. Yogurt is bacteria-fermented milk, health drink.

9. Carica and Mamordica extracts for medicine and health food

10. Organically grown food (without the use of chemical pesticide and fertilizer)

Dr. Domingo Tapiador, a retired UN expert on agriculture and fisheries, helped initiate the introduction of Spirulina in the country. He showed me the capsule preparation produced in Japan. “Why can’t we grow Spirulina locally?” he asked.

Today a year after, there are successful pilot projects. Spirulina is not only good as human food but feeds as well. Professor Johnny Ching of De la Salle University DasmariƱas found out that Spirulina added to the feed ration of bangus improves growth rate. (MS Biology, UST) Similar studies point out to the beneficial effects of Spirulina on the daily weight gain in poultry and livestock. Earlier studies also discovered Azolla, an aquatic fern with a blue-green alga symbiont – Anabaena, as a valuable feed supplement to farm animals.

These lowly groups of organisms which cannot even qualify as plants, but instead protists with which protozoa are their kin, biologically speaking that is, are after all “giants.”

They hold the promise in providing food, medicine, clean environment, and as a whole, a better quality of human life for the people today and the coming generations.

x x x

The Living with Nature Handbook, AVR-UST

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