Abaca: Weaving more opportunities into farmers’ lives. Abaca, known worldwide as Manila Hemp, is an economically important crop indigenous to the Philippines. It is the lifeblood of more than 200,000 farming families from 56 abaca growing provinces in the country.

Abaca is also a top export commodity of the country with an average of US$80 million annual export earnings. It has high demand in the global trade as raw materials for cordage, textile, handicrafts, and specialty papers. Just recently, it has found its niche in the automobile industry as the ‘strongest natural fiber material’ for dashboards and car interiors.

Supplying 85% of the total world abaca fiber production, the Philippines prides itself as the world’s top producer of abaca fiber. Despite its dominance in the world market, however, the country is confronted by the reality that abaca remains a poor man’s crop. The small farmers get meager income from abaca production which eventually forces them to shift to other crops.

Confronted by these concerns, coupled with many industry problems, abaca production in the country declined in the past years. As Ecuador tails behind in terms of production, the Philippine abaca industry is in the risk of losing its leadership in the abaca global scene if certain concerns in abaca production are not immediately addressed.

Some of the ills that confront the Philippine abaca industry include poor technology adoption of farmers, lack of high-yielding and virus-resistant planting materials, and prevalence of pest and diseases pressures – most notorious of which is the abaca bunchy top virus (ABTV).

In a bid to address these concerns, the government, through the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD), banked on certain S&T interventions. One of these major initiatives is the development and promotion of improved abaca varieties to strengthen commercial production.

After many years of research and field tests, researchers from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) led by Dr. Antonio G. Lalusin were able to develop high yielding and ABTV-resistant abaca hybrids. These hybrids are more vigorous, could produce a yield of 1.56 mt/ha/yr, and give 20-30% higher fiber recovery than traditional varieties.

Since traditional varieties are very susceptible to the dreaded ABTV disease, the new UPLB abaca resistant hybrids are considered very promising in rehabilitating abaca plantations affected by the ABTV disease.

The high yielding and ABTV-resistant hybrids project is an R&D initiative under the PCAARRD’s Industry Strategic S&T Plan for Abaca. Specifically, it is expected to contribute in achieving a higher fiber yield from 0.53 mt/ha to 1.2 mt/ha and increased fiber recovery from 1% to 1.5% by 2020.

The project on abaca production is a collaborative work among UPLB, Visayas State University, University of Southern Mindanao, Bicol University, Western Mindanao State University, University of Southeastern Philippines, Caraga State University, Catanduanes State University, University of Eastern Philippines, and Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority.

Currently, the research team are mass producing and promoting the use of hybrids in major abaca producing provinces such as Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Leyte, Southern Leyte, Northern Samar, Western Samar, Davao Oriental, Davao del Sur, Surigao del Sur, and Sulu. Once fully commercialized, 1,568 hectares of abaca farms is targeted for rehabilitation out of the project.

By rehabilitating abaca farms with high yielding and virus-resistant hybrids, DOST-PCAARRD and its partners hope to usher in better opportunities for the local farmers, processors, and other industry stakeholders. Through the adoption of these UPLB hybrids, the government aims to ease the plight of poor abaca farmers and help improve their income and social status.

The initiative on the improvement of abaca production as supported by PCAARRD is one of its commitment under DOST’s Outcome One?to provide science-based know-how and tools that will enable the agricultural sector to raise productivity to world-class standards.

PCAARRD’s commitment to Outcome One will be showcased by the Council in its participation to the National Science and Technology Week (NSTW) on July 24-28 at SMX Mall of Asia, Pasay City.

The 2015 NSTW adopts the theme Philippines: A Science Nation Innovating for Global competitiveness.

PCAARRD, on the other hand, adopts Strategic Industry Program for Agri-Aqua Growth (SIPAG) ni Juan as its theme to bolster its commitment to Outcome One.

The Council pursues this commitment through its Industry Strategic S&T Plans, among other programs, hence the tagline SIPAG ni Juan.

by Sharie Al-Faiha A. Abustan, DOST-PCAARRD S&T Media Service