By Pablito P. Pamplona

Agriculture Experts are convinced that without widespread shifting from the cultivation of low yielding traditional varieties to high yielding hybrids of wheat and corn, a good portion of the world’s population today will go hungry.

Hybrid rice helped bring about food sufficiency in China. The shifting from the cultivation of traditional varieties to high yielding corn hybrids recently transformed the Philippines from an importing to an exporting country of corn grains. High yielding hybrid oil palm meets the world’s huge requirement for cheap and healthful vegetable oil and brings rural prosperity among the farmers in the leading hybrid oil palm producing countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Recent research findings show that high yielding coconut hybrids can provide farmers with high yields and incomes above the poverty level. The Philippines has 3.5 million hectares (ha) of coconut farms representing almost one-third of the Philippine land area devoted to agriculture.
Millions of coconut farmers are among the poorest of the poor in the country.

In the Cocolink International Coconut Conference organized by the DTI and the Davao Region Coconut Industry Cluster, Inc. and held at SMX, Davao Cityin July 2016, a unique paper discussed the emerging expansion of the cultivation of hybrid coconut in India,supported largely by private companies like Deejay Coconut Breeding Farm, with 200ha.The Deejay Coconut Breeding Farm produces hybrids by crossing the Malayan yellow dwarf and a tall Indian variety. In the process, the farm produces and makes availablefor sale to Indian farmers two million ready-to-plant hybrid coconut seedlings per year. What Deejay does is similar to what a private company producing and selling hybrid corn seeds to corn farmers does.

The coconut seedlings are planted at a density of 175 trees/ha, adequately weeded, fertilized, and provided with low cost drip irrigation during dry months. The water requirement is less than one-fourth of what is needed for lowland rice. Drip irrigation supplies water to coconut trees even in rugged terrains. This cultivation of hybrid coconut trees is a departure from the common practice of planting coconut using traditional low yielding varieties, inadequate weeding and fertilization techniques, and without irrigation.

The hybrids produced by Deejay Breeding Farm flower in just 18 months, and the harvest of
the first mature nuts comes 27 months after planting. When they reach four years old (and older), the trees produce, on the average, 250 nuts/tree per year or an equivalent to 43,5750 nuts/ha per year, equivalent to 8.75 tons of copra/ha per year.

This is four times the national average coconut yield in India of 10,117 nuts/ha per year and more than ten times the average coconut yield in the Philippines of only 4,101 nuts/ha per year. This is also higher than the yield of hybrid coconut trees previously observed by the author at United Plantation Berhad, Malaysia, which produces, on the average, 36,000 nuts/ha per year using the Philippine-developed hybrid “Matag.”

The current farmgate price of copra in the Philippines is P30/ kilogram (kg) or P240,000 for the eight tons of yield. Granting that one-third of that goes to expenses, the net income of P160,000 is twice the current level of income at poverty levels of P87,000.

The high coconut yield also results in higher amounts of raw materials for the production of virgin coconut oil, coir fibers, and dust for the production of many downstream products, young nuts for coconut juice, and soft cotyledon or meat and coconut water, coconut cream, coconut milk, ethanol to fuel transport vehicles, coconut husks as feed stock for electricity, and coconut sugar to meet the increasing worldwide demand for sweeteners suitable for diabetics. Interestingly, hybrid coconuts produce more economic output with less land area. This is important for the Philippines considering the limited farm size of coconut under the agrarian reform program and the dwindling amount of land resources for meeting the needs of the rapidly expanding population.

In India, hybrid coconuts produce high sugar yield, higher than sugar cane plants. Each hybrid coconut tree produces six liters of toddy or coconut juice on the average. Tapping of the emerging flower in each tree is done 300 days a year for a toddy yield of 315,000 liters/year,which is converted into 54 MT of coconut sugar/ha per year. Coconut sugar production is both a high income and employment generator, as it employs three persons/ha for the tapping and processing of sugar. Case studies mentioned during the Cocolink showed Indian farmers planting hybrids and producing copra or coconut sugar in a hectare of land being liberated from poverty thanks to their increased incomes.The higher income ensures that these farmers have the capacity to buy more than enough nutritious food for their families.

During the recent Cocolink International Conference in SMX, Davao City, many foreign buyers came to negotiate with local producers to buy (on a long term basis) large quantities of various coconut products: coconut sugar, VCO, coconut water, coconut milk, coconut cream, and others products like those shown above.

The Cocolink at SMX was attended by many foreign buyers who negotiated with local producers to buy large volumes, on long-term supply contracts, of virgin coconut oil (VCO), coconut water, coconut sugar, and many other coconut products. The health benefits of coco sugar, VCO, and coco water are increasingly being recognized worldwide. In the USA, cases of patients whose kidney maladies have been alleviated by daily drinking of coconut water are being documented.

Currently, the Philippines ranks third in the world trade of coconut water with a share of 8%. Brazil, the leading exporter, captures 38% of the international market, with Thailand ranking second at 32%. Thailand coconut water export is largely in the form of minimally processed young nuts with sweet juice and cotyledon. The varieties that the Thais use for this purpose are “Nam Wan” and “Nam Hom.” Incidentally, in the toddy production trial carried out by the author at the TPFN (Triple P Farms and Nursery) farm in Cotabato, Nam Wan is a higher producer of toddy for sugar. Its average toddy yield was at 3.8 liters/tree/day as compared to the average of 2.0 liters/tree/day of most Philippine coconut varieties.

In view of this, TPFN is commercializing the production of
“Nam Wan” seednuts for farmers who intend to establish plantations to produce either or both of the two high value products: young nuts with sweet juice and tender meat or coconut sugar. It shall also produce, in 3-4 years, through breeding,both Mawa and Matag hybrids known to produce 6 or more liters of toddy per day using modern cultural management practices.

It is high time that President Duterte’s government brings about radical positive changes in the way coconut is being grown in the country: by putting in more resources, both financial and in terms of manpower, to support research and transform the farming practices of the coconut farmers by planting hybrids coupled with the new agricultural practices. Support for the PCA’s breeding work and seed nut production of hybrids should be expanded to become the core of the modernization of the Philippine coconut industry.

Coconut trees of the Nam Wan variety produce sweeter juice and higher toddy yields of 3.8 liters/tree/day compared to 2.0 liters with Philippine traditional varieties.

Research should be intensified to identify interventions which will allow for the optimization of the yield of these hybrids to maximize the income of coconut farmers. The Philippine government should provide incentives to private entrepreneurs to carry out research and produce hybrids to meet the demand of the country.Once hybrid seednuts become available, the government should capacitate the farmers to plant or replant coconut lands with hybrids, similar to what is being practiced in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

It is estimated that 600,000 ha of senile coconut trees in the Philippines are due for replanting. This will require 120 million hybrid seedlings at a population density of 200 plants/ha. To meet this requirement will not be easy for the government unless there is strong private sector participation for the mass production of hybrid seednuts. Replanting with hybrids is a sure way to overcome poverty and promote countryside prosperity.

About the author: Dr. Pablito P. Pamplona is a retired professor of the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, Cotabato. He is now a full-time consultant and farmer of tree crops such as tropical fruits, oil palm, and coconut in the provinces of Cotabato and Agusan del Sur.Email him at pabpamplona@yahoo.com.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s October 2016 issue.