Thursday, September 6, 2018

What does it take to be an agronomist and what lies ahead of him or her?

By Dr. Jose L. Bacusmo, Past President, Visayas State University

Here are important figures to us:

·       a) In 2017, the total paddy rice output of the Philippines met 93% of the country's annual requirement. The population consumed 11.7 million tons of rice. (usual shortage of 10% and brown rice/rice bran solution).

·       b) In 2016, for every 17 births per 1000 population there were 6 deaths per 1000 population. Every minute, 2.8 Filipinos are born. Every 10 or 11 minutes, we need one new classroom and down the road each of these kids will consume 120 kg of rice per year. (why is Philippine presidency such a contested and contentious position?)

(“ang ginoo pito ra kaadlaw nagbuhat ug yuta pero ang tawo walay hunong himo ug bata”-Gov. RE Lerias)

·       c) All of the scenarios of future climate change (CC) point to increase the estimates of the number of people at risk from hunger. (ascribing everything to climate change)

This country is therefore in dire need of professionals who study plants and work for increasing their production in an economical and environmentally sustainable fashion. Mind you, it is not only this country, but the whole world. Who are these professionals?

Used to be in the 1970’s and earlier, there was not much specialization. When it was plant, agronomists took care of it. Thus, an agronomist takes care of management: soil, pest and other growth and production issues in the field. I remember that there were only agronomy, animal science, agricultural education and home science as major fields in this campus. (lots of field work/learning by working, Agric was looked down).

Later, when Visayas Agricultural College (VAC) became a state college (ViSCA), other specializations were introduced such as arts and letters, ag. engineering, ag. economics, ag. chemistry, plant protection, plant breeding, forestry, vet. medicine grew out of animal science, ag. extension and dev. communication grew out of ag. education, food tech grew out of home science, and horticulture grew out of agronomy and, soil science was added to the agronomy department. Specializations are important for us to grow.

In the latter years of my term as president of this university, we had to “handle with care” a formal divorce of agronomy and soil science.  (jurisdiction and property distribution were quite tricky and sensitive to handle but they can’t go back living together again). 
VSU agronomists conducting a field experiment

All these specializations somehow delimit the scope of work agronomists are expected to deliver professionally. However, specialization did not and will not limit farmers’ expectations from an agronomist and other agriculture-related graduates from this university. In our national context where an agronomist most likely find himself/herself engaging with farmers alone in the field, an agronomist is also expected to be a good soil scientist, farm economist, horticulturist, plant breeder, communicator and even good in animal production, aquaculture and forestry or NRM to name some. To farmers, an agronomist is an “agriculturist”- an embodiment of expert. (McCoy and Ormoc rice farmers, Roy and cassava growers)

What does this tell you?

Do not limit yourself to knowing only field crops and cultural management practices. Endeavor to know and master beyond crop science. I recently analyzed the CHED Memorandum Order (CMO) that governs offering of agriculture and observed that the prescribed curriculum provides graduates the sciences needed for one to become a good agriculturist (but good is not enough). However, the CMO doesn’t preclude us from adding additional fundamental and major courses especially that now, some of the general education courses have been downloaded to senior high.

I will not interfere in the plans of this department, but I personally still subscribe to a 4-year BSA major in Agronomy curriculum rather than the 12+3. With the growing demand for climate SMART and precision agriculture, agriculturists need more mapping techniques, advance soil study techniques and even more understanding in biotechnology and IT. (possible from cross enrolment in the fourth year)

Furthermore, the CMO does not preclude our agronomy professors to deliver the course in a more advanced and exciting manner that student will endeavor to learn as much as possible in the course and not endeavor to end their suffering as soon as possible from taking their courses. This can only happen if professors in this department will engage in research/driven by discovery, extension work and actual farming. (farming lessons on seeds and weeding)

Specialization is usually overcome by collaboration or partnership but, it will be hard for anyone to collaborate/partner with someone who doesn’t have anything (absolute provision). If you don’t have anything other disciplines can offer, without your partners/collaborators, you will be paralyzed/inutile and unable. A person is appreciated and recognized usually when he can deliver more than what is expected of him. (basketball experience)

So, to faculty members and students, make BSA major in agronomy broad and exciting by learning beyond your coursework and collaborating with other specialists. For example, it will not be bad if some of you do research involving drones and high spectral cameras for field observation and management delivery. It will be exciting to see our agronomy students study how to use GPS and make or handle GIS maps as tractors are now equipped with GPS, and future tractors will be dominated with robotics. It will be great to see our agronomy students use plant or crop physiology study sensors, do genetic modification in their thesis or deal with soil problems as it affects field crops. Clearly for this to happen, there is a need for different specializations to relax, weaken and render more permeable the boundaries of various specializations of agriculture in this university and allow greater collaboration.

So, what’s the future of agronomists?

Let me say that the future of this country and this world depends on the agronomists. Agriculture is the backbone of this country and we need to feed and clothe an ever growing population. Agronomists are simply crucial to pulling off the job.

However, they should not be agronomists as usual. There is a saying that “a solution should measure up to the problem”. The problem of food and resources in this country has become more difficult and complex that the new breed of agronomists should be armed with complex knowledge and skills. With appropriate knowledge and skills, an agronomist will be potent and can go “places”. Short of this, an agronomist is doomed to be unexciting and lame.
--------------------------------- 
Excerpt of the speech delivered during the acquaintance program, Department of Agronomy, VIsayas State University, on 31 August 2018.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Cebu Highlands: some notes on the agricultural practices and beautiful landscape


By Dr. Luz Geneston Asio
Department of Agronomy, Visayas State University

The highlands in the middle of Cebu which extends from the city in the east to Balamban/Asturias in the west, presents a beautiful mixture of protected landscapes with good secondary forest cover, and crop production systems consisting of orchard particularly mango, annual crops, vegetables and cut flowers. 


Beautiful views of the Cebu Highlands

The very beautiful scenery reminds visitors of Baguio City or some foreign places like Indonesia or Taiwan. Clearly observable even on distant undulating slopes are the mango trees which are adapted to the agroclimatic conditions of Cebu. 

Mango trees are abundant in certain parts of the landscape
Cebuanos are widely known to be corn eaters. This explains why corn is the most widely grown grain crop in the highlands. On red acidic soils from igneous rocks as well as on dark calcareous soils from limestone, nutrient deficiency symptoms (N, P) are clearly observable. But the crop is still able to produce a relatively good yield.


Large and small corn plantations are common in the highlands

On degraded limestone slopes on the western side close to Balamban, coconut plantations can be seen which are also showing nutrient deficiency symptoms most probably nitrogen and iron as indicated by the yellowing of leaves (plant analysis data from comparable lands in southern Leyte indeed revealed both nitrogen and iron deficiencies). 
Coconut plantations in the western side
But the most impressive crop production venture by the people in the highlands is the one which consists of cut flowers (e.g. Chrysanthemum) and vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, chayote, etc). The cut flowers are delivered to the city while the vegetables are sold in the city and in local stores along the highway. 



Stores selling the farm products are found along the highway

It must, however, be mentioned that although contour farming can be seen on some steep slopes, unsustainable cultivation practices can be clearly observed. The most obvious is the plowing or planting of crops along the slope (top to bottom orientation). This practice promotes soil erosion and loss of nutrients from the soil. This should be taken seriously as this could lead to severe soil erosion on the slopes accompanied by siltation of the streams below. It could have long-term impact on the water quality and quantity in the streams.

(Report was based on the field work we conducted from July 31 to August 2, 2018. I thank Dr. Vic Asio for his ideas and Julian Cumad (MSc Soil Science student) for organizing our visit. All photos are owned by the author.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Rice production in Eastern Samar: is there a bright future?


By Luz Geneston Asio, PhD
Department of Agronomy, VSU, Baybay City, Leyte

Eastern Samar has been consistently ranked as one of the poorest provinces in the country (www.faq.ph). A major reason for this is the low agricultural productivity due to several reasons: frequent typhoons, lack of government support, lack of political will, old farming methods, and many others.

During our one-week field work in the province this July, we travelled to interior barangays, observed crop production practices and technologies, interviewed farmers and technicians to get a picture of the real reasons for the low rice productivity of the province.
A poor rice farmer in San Jose village in Borongan City


Very striking across most of Eastern Samar is the widespread occurrence of uncultivated or only partly cultivated alluvial lands particularly near river systems. Such lands generally have great potential for intensive and highly productive rice production due to their generally flat topography. But most areas are idle and covered with Cyperus sedge and other grasses due to the lack of any irrigation system to supply the fields with sufficient water. Our field observations indicate that enough water lies beneath the land surface but nothing is done to tap it (e.g. deep wells) to support rice production.

An idle former rice land in Dolores, Eastern Samar

Only partly cultivated alluvial plain in San Julian, Eastern Samar

In many areas, we observed that farmers are planting modern rice varieties but are managed in the traditional way. For example, the modern rice varieties need proper spacing to grow well but most farmers are still practicing the random planting without proper spacing. Farmers also complained that they received seeds and small amount of fertilizers from the Department of Agriculture only once. It did not help them improve their production.

Modern rice variety planted at random (without proper spacing)

Shortly after planting, the soil dries up due to the absence of an irrigation system

Modern rice varieties are high yielding. Meaning, they are capable of producing high grain yields but they need high amounts of nutrients from the soil for them to attain their yield potential. Unfortunately, most farmers do not apply fertilizers or apply only insufficient amounts of fertilizers. The explanation by some agricultural technicians that the modern varieties need less fertilizers than the traditional varieties is simply not correct.

A farmer in Sulat harvesting his rice (he uses coconut leaves to protect him from the sun)

Quinapundan in the south is the only municipality where rice production appears to be very productive. The municipality possesses a large alluvial plain which is used for intensive rice production. The major reason is the availability of a functional irrigation system which allows farmers to plant two or more croppings of rice a year. We wonder why the local government in this municipality has been very successful in its rice production program but not Borongan, San Julian, Sulat, Taft, Can-avid, Dolores and the other municipalities which have wide areas of alluvial plains which are generally suitable for lowland rice production.


Intensive rice cultivation in Quinapundan, Eastern Samar

The prediction of one high ranking government official who was interviewed on local TV that Eastern Samar will attain rice self sufficiency in the next five years is not attainable. Not unless of course the politicians will do something drastic to solve the real causes of low rice productivity in the province. 

Just imagine how many tons of rice will be produced once these large idle lands throughout the province will be made productive through functional irrigation system, proper fertilization, high yielding varieties and other modern farming methods. Unfortunately, for Eastehanons this is not the priority of the politicians. Thus, we can safely assume that Eastern Samar will continue to be one of the poorest provinces. The future of rice production in the province may not be bright at all.
---------
All photos were taken and are owned by the author.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Nutrient addition as a forest restoration management strategy for Yakal yamban seedling establishment in ophiolitic soils



by Johannes R. G. Asio
Institute of Tropical Ecology and Environmental Management (ITEEM),VSU, Baybay City, Leyte, Philippines
Introduction
Dipterocarp trees (Dipterocarpaceae) have crucial ecological roles such as in the prevention of landslides, sequestration of atmospheric carbon, and biodiversity. They are also economically important in terms of timber production. These native trees are also adapted to a variety of climatic conditions and geographic locations (e.g. areas prone to heavy typhoons, marginal lands). However, the sustainable management of dipterocarp forests is still poorly understood due to the limited studies conducted on the subjet. This is particularly so in terms of the ability of these forest trees to thrive in marginal lands like those naturally contaminated with heavy metals and those soils with very low nutrient status such as ophiolitic and serpentinite areas (Corlett&Primack, 2006; DENR, 2012; Appanah, 1998; Walpole, 2010).
Ophiolite rocks are widespread in Leyte, Samar, Cebu and Palawan.These rocks generally underlain marginal lands. A typical ophiolite complex is a stratified igneous rock complex that consists of different rock layers: an upper basalt member, a middle gabbro member, and a lower peridotite member (Ishiwatari, 2016). The fertility of Ophiolite rocks in the Philippines has not yet been studied in detail, however, according to some literatures, it is generally moderately acidic to neutral, low soil organic matter, low nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which are the major nutrients needed for plant growth, and it contains high amounts of heavy metals, such as chromium, nickel, iron, and cobalt among others (Dimalanta et al., 2006; Ocba, 2016).
Mineral fertilizers have been used in agriculture and forestry to improve crop yield, enhance the soil fertility, and soil health. Thus, this study hypothesized that the addition of N, P, and K to an ophiolite soil could enhance the growth of Yakalyamban (Shorea falciferoides Foxw.) in problematic areas. This dipterocarp species was chosen for this research as it has been known to thrive in the ophiolitic and serpentinite areas of Samar and it is critically endangered, thus the need to preserve this dipterocarp to prevent it from becoming extinct (Fernando et al., 2009, 2008).


This study aimed to test whether the addition of nutrients enhanced the seedling growth of yakal yamban grown in an ophiolitic soils, determine the optimum nutrient combination level for yakalyamban seedling quality; and assess and evaluate whether fertilization could very well be adopted as a nutrient management practice in using yakal yamban as a rainforestation species for forest restoration in problematic soils.
Methodology
The potting medium was selected based on the soil data obtained by the VSU-OXFAM Project (2015). Detailed soil analysis done by the project showed that the soils in Barangay Padang, Hernani, Eastern Samar developed from ophiolitic rocks and have low levels of N,P,K, and Mg, but high levels of Ca. Twenty sacks of topsoil (0-30cm depth) were collected and transported to the Terrestrial Ecosystems Division of the Institute of Tropical Ecology and Environmental Management for this screenhouse experiment. The bulk soil samples were mixed, air-dried thoroughly, pulverized and sieved using a 4-mm mesh sieve. About 1.5 kg of the air-dried soil was weighed; 0.75 kg sieved soil (from the 4-mm sieve) and 0.75 kg unsieved soil to avoid soil compaction.


This one-year study was conducted using a 5 x 3 Randomized Complete Block Design (RCBD) with five treatments and three replicates, wherein each treatment per replication consisted of 10 seedlings. The treatment are as follows: T1- No fertilizer application, T2- Application of 3.65 g of Urea, 9.33 g of Solophos, & 2.8 g of Muriate of Potash, T3- Application of 3.65 g of Urea, 9.33 g of Solophos, T4- Application 9.33 g of Solophos& 2.8 g of Muriate of Potash, T5- Application of 3.65 g of Urea & 2.8 g of Muriate of Potash. Placement application was done wherein the exact amount of fertilizer for each seedling was applied a few centimeters below the soil surface. Tap water was used. About 400 mL was added as required.
Three (3) randomly selected seedlings in each replication were harvested after 3 months and 6 months from fertilizer application. The selected seedlings were photographed before and after harvest, documenting each plant part and making notable observations. Thereafter, each individual seedling was cut; each leaf was photographed in preparation for leaf area analysis. Then, each plant part (roots, stem, and leaves) was separated and placed into the corresponding paper bags ready for oven drying. The soil samples in each replication were mixed and placed into labelled plastic bags ready for air-drying and analysis.
Major Findings
Results revealed highly significant differences in leaf area, percent biomass allocation, and root-shoot ratio between treatments 6 months after sampling. In terms of leaf area, treatment 4 showed the highest leaf area value. All treatments added with phosphorus (treatments 2,3 and 4) had leaf area values that were statistically the same. This indicates that P is the most critical nutrient in the soil and that this tree species is sensitive to the P levels in the soil.

There were also significant differences in terms of the percent biomass allocation between treatments in the root, stem, and leaves, with treatment 5 showing the highest allocation in the roots; plants in P-deficient environments enhance root growth as it is their adaptive mechanism that enables them to thrive in these conditions. The result also coincides with the root-shoot ratio as study plants in treatment 5 had the highest root-shoot value.


Soil nutrient analysis was done to determine the nutrient status of each treatment. The analyses concur with the fact that ophiolitic soils are deficient with N, P, & K, thus the high values of the nutrients were due to the fertilizers added prior to destructive harvesting. It was also observed that the fertilizer treatments have not yet fully dissolved even after 6 months of application.
Plant nutrient concentration was also done to determine the nutrient content of each plant part. In terms of nitrogen (N), there were high values of N in the leaves as it is needed for photosynthetic activity. However, it was below the optimum concentration needed for plant growth (Marschner, 1995). With regards to P, there were high values of the nutrient in treatments not added with P. It may be due to the mycorrhizae present in the roots of the study plants after 6 months of application. For K, solubility played a factor since there was an inhibition of nutrients to be taken up especially between N and K.

The presence of ectomycorrhizae (EcM) was also observed in the roots of the study plants of the control (T1) and NK (T5). Various studies have proven that mycorrhiza aids in the growth of a plant as it enhances the absorption of nutrients and water (Marschner, 1995; Read, 1991). The result also coincides with the study of Turner et al., 1992 as EcM infection may serve as a purpose when dipterocarps are grown in nutrient-poor conditions.
Implications
Nutrient addition could very well be adapted as a nutrient management strategy for the seedling establishment of Yakal yamban in ophioitic soils; Treatment 5 enhanced the root-shoot ratio of the study plants, thus these seedlings are of good quality. This implies that during establishment of the seedlings in an open area, they are most likely to survive due to its adaptive mechanism (e.g. enhance root growth in p-deficient environments) and the potential fungus-root association in the soil.
------------ 
The above article is a summary of the BSEM thesis by the author which won as 2017 Phi Delta Outstanding Thesis in Applied Biological Sciences at VSU, Baybay City, Leyte. More information can be obtained from the author. Email: johannes.asio@vsu.edu.ph

Friday, September 29, 2017

Heavy metals in vegetables sold in some cities in the Visayas, Philippines


Every time we buy vegetables in the market, we do not doubt the quality of these farm products. We think they are clean, safe, nutritious and good for our health.

But the worsening environmental pollution due to the overuse and misuse of agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, the improper waste disposal, the manufacturing industry, and the transportation system may be affecting the quality of the food crops we eat everyday. Specifically, heavy metals most of which are toxic to humans at elevated concentrations, are starting to contaminate the vegetables we love to eat.

The scientific principle is simple: a contaminated soil will generally produce contaminated crops.



An interesting and very relevant student research conducted a few years ago revealed such alarming reality. Conducted to determine and compare the Pb, Cu and Zn contents of Alugbati (Basella rubra), Ampalaya (Momordica charantia), Kalabasa (Cucurbita maxima), Kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica), Pechay (Brassica rapa), and Talong (Solanum melongena) sold in markets in the cities of Baybay, Ormoc, and Tacloban (Leyte, Philippines), the study revealed that Ampalaya from Tacloban and Baybay contained excessive levels of Cu and may pose health problems to consumers. 

Likewise, Pechay from Baybay, Ormoc and Tacloban exceeded the safe level for Zn. All vegetable samples collected from the three cities were not contaminated with Pb. Cu and Zn levels varied with crop (vegetable) species and origin (production area). 

The results are very relevant in that they support and confirm the fear among consumers that some food crops sold in the local markets are not safe and may be one of the reasons for the various health problems experienced by many people.

The study was conducted in 2012 by Anna Luisa Ventulan, Christine Gay Cala, and Johannes Reiner Asio, all senior students at VSU Laboratory High School. The research adviser was Luz Geneston Asio of the Central Analytical Services Laboratory, Visayas State University, Baybay City, Leyte.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ecological quality, macroinvertebrate communities and diversity in rivers in Leyte, Philippines


Researchers from the Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic Ecology, Ghent University, Belgium, in collaboration with researchers from the Institute of Tropical Ecology and Environmental Management of Visayas State University in Leyte have published scientific evidence of a strong link between ecological quality and macroinvertebrate communities and diversity in rivers in Leyte.

In a paper published this year (2017) in the prestigious journal Ecological Indicators, Vol. 77 and pages 228-238, Marie Anne Eurie Forio and colleagues assessed the macroinvertebrate communities, diversity, and ecological quality of 85 rivers on Leyte island. Specifically, they evaluated the biological (macroinvertebrates), chemical, physical and hydromorphological characteristics. Canonical Correspondence Analysis (CCA) and multivariable linear regression (LRM) were performed to relate the environmental variables and macroinvertebrates.

Eurie Forio and Daphne Radam during the field sampling in Cabintan, Ormoc
(at the central highlands of Leyte) in 2015
The researchers found several taxa of snails, shrimps, dragonflies, beetles, bugs and caddisflies. Although many sites had good to very good ecological quality and high diversity, about 41% had moderate to very bad ecological quality and low diversity. Based on CCA, the researchers concluded that macroinvertebrate communities were associated with velocity, sediment, conductivity and dissolved oxygen. They also observed that sensitive and tolerant taxa were encountered at high and low flow velocities, respectively. Moreover, LRM indicated that macroinvertebrate diversity and ecological quality were associated with physical (turbidity), chemical (chlorophyll), hydromorphological characteristics (bank slope & pool/riffle class), habitat degradation (gravel/sand quarrying, erosion) and the presence of logs and twigs.

Eurie Forio (lead author) and Prof. Peter Goethals (lead scientist)
This ecological study, the first of its kind (i.e. covering 85 rivers of an entire tropical island) to be conducted in the Philippines, supports the use of invertebrates as indicators of certain environmental conditions and the results of this investigation can serve as a basis to set up dedicated experiments to further prove the causality of these discovered relations. 

The study also revealed that organic pollution, as reflected by biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand, was weakly related to invertebrate composition, diversity and ecological quality. This was linked to the low input in most sites and the relatively short rivers which are closely connected to the marine system. Thus, typical midstream and downstream systems were not encountered and the accumulation of these pollutants along the river is less likely. Although the island encounters intensive natural disturbances (e.g. severe typhoons), the taxa (families) were similar to those in other tropical systems and the effects of the environmental conditions were comparable.

The findings of this collaborative research are relevant and valuable in understanding the ecology of tropical islands. They also provide insights into the effects of environmental conditions on stream invertebrates, which aids in protecting and conserving tropical insular systems.

Reference:


Forio, M.A.E., K. Lock, E.D. Radam, M. Bande, V.B. Asio and P.L.M. Goethals (2017). Assessment and analysis of ecological quality, macroinvertebrate communities and diversity in rivers of a multifunctional tropical island. Ecological Indicators 77 (2017) 228–238