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Biotechnology helps poor man’s crop

Biotechnology is helping revive declining abaca farms that would otherwise bring in dollar earnings.

The abaca industry generated foreign exchange earnings amounting to $80 million yearly from 2001 to 2010, according to the Fiber Industry Development Authority. As the world’s leading abaca producer, the country provides about 85 percent of the total world abaca requirement with the remainder supplied by Ecuador.

More than half of the produce goes to the manufacture of pulp. There is also a high demand for abaca cordage, ropes and twine; yarns, fabric and textile, handicraft, specialty paper raw material and, recently, for automobile dashboard and car interior composites.

For all that, abaca remains a poor man’s crop, the low return forcing farmers to plant other crops, decreasing abaca production in recent years. Ecuador, the other major producer, and Indonesia, a wannabe, are just waiting to fill the vacuum. 

To slow if not halt the competition, the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) wants to reverse the lack of high-yielding and virus-resistant planting materials and prevent pest and disease pressures.

The Abaca Bunchy Top Virus is widespread in Eastern Visayas, one of the top abaca-producing regions in the country. The Bureau of Agricultural Statistics estimates that abaca production in the region amounted to 20,000 metric tons in 2011, making it the second highest producer of abaca, next only to the Bicol region. In 2011, some 39,500 hectares of land were planted to abaca.

Some 19,107 hectares of plantations in Leyte and Southern Leyte are also affected by the mosaic and bunchy top virus that destroys half of the fiber yield and consequently the plant.

One research on abaca that is supported by PCAARRD is the functional genomics of abaca through gene discovery and molecular markers. The research is being conducted at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Genome sequencing of abaca is helping researchers find DNA markers that characterize genes and their desired characteristics to improve fiber quality and resistance to the Abaca Bunchy Top Virus. Genome mapping R&D reduces virus infestation by 60 percent, according to PCAARRD.

The Visayas State University in Baybay, Leyte, has developed a diagnostic kit for the identification of the virus. All these – in a package of technology for abaca hybrid production – to increase yield by 42 percent, Antonio Lalusin of VSU says.

Another R&D program supported by PCAARD looks at abaca fiber for specialty papers, textile and high-end products. It is ongoing at the Forest Products Research and Development Institute, Philippine Textile Research Institute and the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute

Source: Science Philippines

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