Thursday, September 15, 2016

Refocusing Agriculture in the Philippines

Refocusing Agriculture: Excerpt from my Convocation Speech at the 45th Founding Anniversary of Visayas State University (VSU)-Alangalang Campus, Leyte, Philippines on 09 Sept 2016.

By V.B. Asio

Your theme “Agrivolution: refocusing farming for food and nutrition security” is very timely and very relevant.

When I was an agriculture student in ViSCA in 1980, the agriculture battle cry was: we need to increase crop yield by increasing the yield per unit area and by cultivating new lands because of rapidly increasing population. Population of the country at the time was only 48 million. The hot research topic was farming system, which slowly became cropping system, then sustainable agriculture or ecological farming, and now organic agriculture. If you examine these farming strategies, they are closely related. But the last, which is organic agriculture, has become very narrow in scope and very impractical in many aspects.
Highly productive alluvial lands in Baybay, Leyte, are threatened by conversion into residential areas 
But where are we now?

Now more than 30 years have passed, with a staggering country’s population of more than 100 million, we still have the same battle cry:  to increase food production by increasing yield per unit area and by opening new lands. This time though, there are a lot more complications. The problem of increasing food production has become more urgent, and very problematic. Let me cite some reasons:

1.       The gap between population increase and food production has greatly widened. Our population has more than doubled but crop yield has not doubled despite the availability of new high yielding varieties, fertilizers and pesticides. For example, average rice yield in 1980 was 2.3 tons/ha. Now it is only 3.8 tons/ha. What is aggravating the problem is that production cost has greatly increased, and the area of our agricultural lands have decreased.

Many of the new high yielding varieties which showed great potential in the experimental stations, have failed to show their yield potential in the actual world-- in farmers’ fields . According to Dr. Francisco of Philrice in an undated paper, the yield gap ranges from 2 t/ha in the wet season, to 3.9t/ha in the dry season. This also partly explains why we cannot find our new high yielding varieties (say, of sweetpotato) in farmers’ farms in Leyte and Samar.

2.       There is increasing soil degradation due to destructive farming practices, resulting in the decline in soil fertility. This is coupled by increasing incidence of pests and diseases. The latter triggers the farmers to over apply pesticides. In our on-going ACIAR-funded soil research, vegetable farmers in the Visayas and some parts of Mindanao just apply any amount of fertilizers without scientific or logical basis. Worse, they over-apply a cocktail of pesticides, 2-3 times a week, endangering the health of the consumers.

3.       As if to make matter more difficult for the next generation, the widespread soil degradation is accompanied by the shrinking of our prime agricultural lands because of urbanization. Urbanization is eating fast our rice lands. In many parts of the country, you would see former productive rice lands have become subdivisions, factory sites and shopping malls.

4.       Climate change has entered the picture. It has changed rainfall pattern, temperature fluctuations, and occurrence of typhoons, floods, and drought. Crops are now subject extreme weather conditions. In short, we are in a more challenging and exciting agriculture.

5.       As a result of the over-application of farm inputs, there is also a degradation of the environment. Soil, water and air pollution are very serious in many places.

6.       This has led to the rise of the organic agriculture movement. The Philippine government has enacted the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010. But we know that organic agriculture cannot produce the amount of food required to feed the fast rising population of the country. Organic agriculture cannot feed our more than 100 million population.
So, we are now facing a dilemma:  protect the environment even if the food production is low, or continue the environmentally damaging practices but with a higher food production. This is like the choice between the ocean and the deep blue sea.

7.       The Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) technology hold great promise for some crops, but are we sure that they are safe? The debate is raging in the international scientific community. Time will tell if GMO crops are really safe to our health and to the environment.

8.       Despite the more than 40 years of designing of agricultural implements, most of our farmers are still practicing manual labor due to a lot of reasons. Have we really looked into why majority of our farmers are not using modern farm implements until now?

9.       What threatens further our agriculture is the decreasing interest in farming among our young generation. It seems everybody wants a happy and easy life. Interest in agricultural science has continued to decline as reflected by the general decline in enrollment in universities and colleges around the country (fortunately, our enrolment in agricultural sciences at the main campus has continued to increase in the last five years).

10.     The mainstream media are partly to blame. Just observe what kind of TV programs are created and promoted. To cite an example, beauty contests are very popular because of the intense media campaign. No wonder many young girls dream to be a beauty queen instead of becoming scientists. The media have failed to create awareness among the youth about the importance of agriculture or about science. And of course, our government institutions too. Much of the blame should go to them.

What should we do? How can we refocus farming or agriculture?

The problem is so serious and so complex. It needs the active participation of all sectors involved. As an academician, I will just focus on the things that we can do in the academe.

1.      There is a need for retooling of those involved in teaching students agriculture. Agricultural science now is different in many aspects from that 30 years ago.
2.       We need to revise and improve our curricula and the courses we are offering.
3.    We need to change our strategy in promoting agriculture. If we still project agriculture using the image of a farmer with the plow and the carabao, we will not gain bright young students to agricultural science.
4.       There is a need for more involvement of our students in OJT in successful and progressive farms.
5.      We need more reliable data on the effects of fertilizers on crop yield. In the last decade, everywhere, there has been a sprouting of all kinds of organic fertilizers whose efficacy have not been scientifically verified. Proponents just cite anecdotal evidence to promote their products. This has led to the erosion in people's confidence in organic fertilizers.
6.     We need to change our strategy in extension. We need to educate more our farmers. How? It is for all of us to think about.

Before I end my talk let me quote Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher. He said that:

 “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Thank you for your kind attention. Happy 45th Anniversary to VSU-Alangalang!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tropical soils: some important aspects of these less understood soils

Tropical regions occur between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The tropics include approximately 40% of the land surface and is the largest ecozone of the earth. According to Köppen (1931), the tropics are characterized by an annual mean air temperature above 18°C through­out the whole year. The largest climatic variation is introduced by the variability of precipita­tion, reaching from nearly 0 mm in the Saharan and Atacama Desert to 11,700 mm on Mt. Waialeala in Hawaii (Eswaran et al., 1992).

An Afisol (Luvisol) soil derived from mudstone in Eastern Samar, Philippines
According to Uehara and Gillman  (1981), "tropical soils" is a common name used to identify any soil that occurs in the tropics. They noted that like most common names, the term lacks precision, but it is more readily understood by a larger audience than are the scientific names. In contrast, Sanchez (1976) argued against the use of the term "tropical soils" since it does not accurately reflect the soils in the tropics. 

Selected properties of the major tropical soils (Jahn and Asio, 2006)
The name tropical soils is now globally accepted but these soils have remained poorly understood until now. The following are some important aspects about tropical soils (Jahn and Asio , 2006):

  1. The tropics,  the world’s largest ecological zone, have very high potential for plant growth but with soil limitations in vast areas.
  2. About one-third of the soils of the world are tropical soils. The most widespread are Ferralsols, Acrisols, Luvisols, Cambisols and Arenosols.
  1. The large proportion of Cambisols (Inceptisols) and Luvisols (Alfisols) in Southeast Asia re­flects clearly the younger age of land surfaces and therefore the short duration of weathering processes.
  1. Some soils occur almost exclu­sively within the tropics. About 90% of the Ferralsols (Oxisols), 80% of the Nitisols (Oxisols/Ultisols), and 60% of the Acrisols (Ultisols) are situated in tropical regions.
  2. The major soil limitations or soil constraints  are  low cation exchange capacity, low base saturation (low pH, high Al-saturation) and high P retention. They are most widespread in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia (in decreasing order based on area).
  3. Physical constraints like high groundwater table, air deficiency and low soil depth are of lesser significance but govern special requirements for soil management in specific landscapes.
  4. Due to severe chemical limitations, proper management of nutrients is the main challenge for effective land use systems in the tropics.
  5. Internal and external fluxes of nutrients are different among soil types and different among tropical landscapes. These have to be considered in ecological land use systems.
  6. To conserve the stock of organic matter in tropical soils (and to increase it in degraded soils), biomass productivity will be a key point for ecological land use systems.
  7. To enable policy-makers as well as land users to establish sustainable and ecological land use systems in the tropics, more precise soil maps and soil information are needed.
Eswaran H., J. Kimble, T. Cook & F.H. Beinroth. 1992. Soil diversity in the tropics: Implications for agricultural development. In: Myths and Science of Soils in the Tropics. SSSA Special Publ. No. 29.
Jahn R. and V.B. Asio. 2006. Climate, geology and soils of the tropics with special reference to Southeast Asia and Leyte (Philippines). In: Proc. 11th International Seminar-Workshop on Tropical Ecology, 21-25 Aug 2006, VSU, Baybay City, Leyte, pp: 23-42.
Köppen W. 1931. Grundriss der Klimakunde. W. de Gruyter & Co., Berlin
Sanchez, P.A. 1976. Properties and Management of Soils in the Tropics. Wiley, New York
Uehara G. and G. Gillman. 1981. The Mineralogy, Chemistry, and Physics of Tropical Soils with Variable Charge Clays. Westview  Press, Boulder Colorado.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Soil Science graduate of VSU wins 2016 Outstanding Young Scientist award

Dr. Ian A. Navarrete was recognized as one of the Outstanding Young Scientists for 2016 by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the premier and most prestigious recognition and advisory body on science and technology in the Philippines. He was awarded for his outstanding achievements in Soil Science as reflected by his papers in international journals as well as by the prestigious research awards he has won.
Dr. Navarrete as one of the Outstanding Young Scientists in 2016 (photo by IA Navarrete) 
Every year, NAST selects 12 recipients of the Outstanding Young Scientist (OYS) Awards who should be young Filipino scientist (below 41 years old) and who have made significant contributions to science and technology. 
During the field sampling for his doctoral dissertation in the central highlands of Leyte 
Dr. Navarrete, who comes from Javier, Leyte, finished his BSA Soil Science and MSc in Soil Science from Visayas State University (VSU). He conducted his undergraduate and graduate theses under the supervision of V.B. Asio. For his MSc thesis on the characteristics and genesis of highly weathered soils from Samar,  he spent four months performing mineralogical and elemental analyses at the Institute of Soil Science and Plant Nutrition, Martin Luther University, Germany (hosted by Prof. Reinhold Jahn) with scholarship support from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The thesis discovered the occurrence of an Oxisol in Samar.
With members of the pedology group of VSU during the field work for his postdoctorate research
He then pursued his doctorate degree at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, Japan, and then went to the University of Goettingen, Germany, for his postdoctorate as an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow, a highly competitive and world-renowned fellowship. The field studies for his doctoral dissertation and postdoctorate research were conducted in Leyte in collaboration with the Pedology and Geo-ecology Laboratory (V.B. Asio) at VSU.
Since 2015, Dr. Navarrete is an Assistant Professor at Ateneo de Manila University.

Soil Science professor from Germany given the highest award by Visayas State University

Prof. Dr. Reinhold Jahn, retired professor of soil science and soil protection at Martin Luther University (also known as University of Halle-Wittenberg), Germany was given the highest award called Sandigan Award (Sandigan means someone you can depend upon) of the Visayas State University (VSU), Baybay, Leyte. In a ceremony on 03 August 2016 at the office of the president, University President Edgardo E. Tulin handed the plaque of recognition to Prof. Jahn in the presence of Dr. Wolfreda T. Alesna, Chairperson of the Awards Committee and several faculty, staff, and students of the Department of Soil Science of VSU.
Prof. Reinhold Jahn receiving the Sandigan Award from Univ President Edgardo E. Tulin
Prof. Jahn was recognized “for his invaluable contributions to the Visayas State University. Since 1995 until his retirement in 2012, Prof. Jahn initiated exchange of students between his faculty in Halle and VSU. He mentored and served as host professor to some VSU academic staff and students who conducted short- and long-term researches in his institute. He strongly supported by serving as resource person and lecturer the 13 editions of the international ecology seminar-workshops co-organized by VSU, University of Hohenheim, and the University of Halle-Wittenberg. During his many scientific visits to VSU in the last 20 years, he conducted several seminars and field works for graduate and undergraduate students of soil science and tropical ecology. Finally, the pioneering pedological-ecological researches on the volcanic soils of Leyte that he and his VSU colleagues have conducted and the international publications they published particularly the Guidelines for Soil Description published in several languages by the FAO of the United Nations and which bears the seal of VSU on its cover have brought international prestige to the university.”
Field work at Lake Danao with participants of the international training on soil examination (2006)
Prof. Jahn obtained his Diplom (MSc) from the Technical University of Berlin, his PhD and Habilitation degrees from the University of Hohenheim under Prof. Karl Stahr. He authored or co-authored several books and more than a hundred papers in international journals which have been cited more than 2,000 times (Source: Google Scholar). He has conducted research projects in Germany, Spain, various parts of Africa, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.  He was elected chairman of various commissions in the German Society of Soil Science and the International Union of Soil Sciences.

During a soil excursion to Southern Leyte with graduate students (2009)
The formal awarding ceremony, which Prof. Jahn was not able to attend, was held at the VSU Gym on 10 August 2016 as one of the highlights of the 92nd Anniversary Celebrations of the university. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The “Scheffer/Schachtschabel Soil Science” Textbook

The Scheffer/Schachtschabel Lehrbuch der Bodenkunde (Textbook of Soil Science), the renowned standard textbook on soil science in German-speaking countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is now available in English for the first time.  The first edition of this highly cited book was published in 1937 under the title “Agrikulturchemie, Teil A: Boden” (Agricultural Chemistry, Part A: Soil). 

Based on the 16th  German edition which was written by a team of leading soil scientists (all renowned professors of soil science), the 2016 English edition was published by Springer Verlag, so it is available globally. I really applaud this development since I have always admired and used this book since the time I was a doctoral student in Stuttgart-Hohenheim many years ago and until now as a professor of soil science at Visayas State University. I remember I read the 10th German edition several times, from cover to cover, in preparation for my comprehensive examination under Prof. K. Stahr. In my opinion, this is among the best, if not the best, soil science textbook for undergraduate and graduate students available today.  It is also an excellent reference for soil researchers. I have already bought an electronic copy of the book and I highly recommend it to all those interested in learning soil science.

You can also find an article about this book which I wrote in 2012 for the Bulletin of the International Union of Soil Sciences. At that time I was asked by the editor of the bulletin to name my top three soil science books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Organic Fertilizers, Organic Plant Growth Regulator, and Organic Plant Supplement as defined in the new Philippine National Standard for Organic Fertilizer

The new Philippine National Standard (PNS) for Organic Fertilizer was published in 2013 by the Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Product Standards (BAFPS) of the Department of Agriculture (PNS/BAFPS 40:2013).

According to this new PNS, Organic Fertilizer is “any product in solid or liquid form, of plant (except by-products from petroleum industries) or animal origin that has undergone substantial decomposition that can supply available nutrients to plants with a total Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) of five to seven percent (5-7%). This may be enriched by microbial inoculants and naturally occurring minerals but no chemical or inorganic fertilizer material has been added to the finished product to affect the nutrient content.”

Organic Plant Growth Regulator/Promoter is “any compound of organic origin, in liquid or solid form, which in low concentration promotes or modifies physiological process in plants.”

Organic Plant Supplement is “any compound of organic origin in liquid or solid form which in low concentration promotes or modifies physiological processes in plants. Total NPK is not lower than 0.5% and not more than 2.5% (0.5-2.5%) and may contain beneficial microorganisms, micronutrients and plant growth regulators. These plant supplements include, but are not limited to: FPJ (Fermented Plant Juice), FFJ (Fermented Fruit Juice), FAA (Fish Amino Acid), FE (Fish Emulsion), Seaweed Extracts, Vermi Tea, Compost Tea and the like.”

The Technical Working Group which prepared the new/revised PNS was composed of: Dr. Leo P. Caneda, Executive Director, BAFPS (Chair) and the following members: Dr. N.B. Inciong (Professional Regulation Commission), Dr. E.P. Paningbatan Jr (Univ Philippines Los Banos), Dr. E.S. Paterno (UPLB), Dr. P.B. Sanchez (UPLB), Dr. V.C. Cuevas (UPLB), Dr. G.V. Pangga (UPLB), Dr. B.M. Calub (UPLB), Dr. N.E de la Cruz (Central Luzon State University), Dr. V.B. Asio (Visayas State University), Ms. J.B. Lansangan (Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority), Ms. P. Orpia (Bureau of Soil and Water Management), Ms. L.K. Limpin (Organic Certification Center of the Phil), Mr.  A. Aquino (Negros Island Certification Agency), and Mr. P.Belisario (Organic Producers and Traders Association).

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A new book on F.A. Fallou provides details of his life and contributions to Soil Science

A new book titled "Friedrich Albert Fallou und the Begruendung der Bodenkunde" (Friedrich Albert Fallou and the Founding of Soil Science) has been published in 2013 as volume 33 (Heft 33) of the "Waldheimer Heimatblaetter", a monograph series published by Waldheim, a town in Saxony, Germany.

Friedrich Albert Fallou & the Founding of Soil Science
F.A. Fallou (1794-1877) has been considered by several authors as the Father of Soil Science. This was the subject of an article I posted earlier on this blog. Unfortunately, this distinction has been wrongly attributed to the Russian V.V. Dokuchaev. For this reason, the prominent Russian historian Jarilow wrote in 1904 that "Fallou is one of humanity's forgotten best sons".

The book  provides clear and strong evidence that Fallou founded the scientific study of soil. It was authored by two retired prominent professors, Prof. Dr. Heiner Kaden (Chemistry, Technical University Freiberg) and Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Fiedler (Soil Science, Technical University of Dresden). Prof. Fiedler has published numerous books and articles on soil science and has in fact written articles on Fallou. He is thus highly qualified to write about Fallou's works.

This is the first publication that presents a complete picture of Fallou: his origin, childhood, education, and professional activities particularly in the field of geology and of course his pioneering contribution to soil science. Some of the interesting revelations in the book include the following: a) Fallou finished his Bachelor of Law studies from the University of Leipzig,  b) he contributed rock samples (e.g. serpentinite) to a museum of natural history, c) he won a scientific prize for a paper he authored, d) he was awarded a Knight's Cross First Class medal by Saxony in 1870 for his works in geology and soil science, and e) Fallou was an introvert who lived a solitary life.

This is a very important book and it deserves to be translated into English so it would be useful to students of soil science in different parts of the world.

I thank Prof. Dr. Kaden for sending me a copy of the book. It will be an important addition to my personal collection on soil science history.