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by Danny O. Calleja / Correspondent
08-December-2009 Business Mirror
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PILI, Camarines Sur—The Department of Agriculture (DA) is intensifying its campaign to draw Bicol farmers into using at least two affordable bio-fertilizer brands that increase crop production as part of the long-term strategy to wean them away from costly, imported fertilizers.

Under this initiative, the agriculture department is pushing on microbial-based fertilizers with the trade marks Bio-Con and Bio-N, both environment-friendly inoculants developed by scientists of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB), and tested to increase crop yields by as much as 20 percent.

Bio-N is a microbial-based inoculant available from suppliers in 49 newly established mixing plants nationwide, while Bio-Con is a commercially produced variety that is now being tested in the corn-farm clusters in Mindanao, the Ilocos region, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon and Palawan, according to Jose Dayao, DA’s regional executive director for Bicol, based here.

Dayao said experts from UPLB and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) have recommended the use of Bio-N and Bio-Con as affordable, growth-boosting and environment-friendly alternatives to imported chemical fertilizers after these substitute fertilizers were screened for their effectiveness on a variety of agricultural crops.

The use of organic fertilizers will not only increase yields per hectare, but will, in the long haul, actually save for farmers hundreds of millions of pesos. Organic fertilizers are believed to help reduce reliance on expensive, imported chemical fertilizers in palay and corn farms, he said.

He noted that Bio-N, for instance, supplies at least 50 percent of the nitrogen requirements of rice, corn and vegetable crops and that five 200-gram seed packets are enough for 1 hectare planted to rice or corn.

Bio-N promotes shoot growth and root development in crops; increases the yield per hectare; and develops the resistance of corn crops to wind and certain plant diseases.

“It is an environmentally safe inoculant that can eliminate the risk of groundwater pollution caused by the leaching of nitrate, especially in loose soils,” the Bicol DA chief explained.

Developed by Dr. Mercedes Garcia of the UPLB’s National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (Biotech) several years ago, Bio-N is a microbial inoculant made with a bacterium called Azospirillum. It helps the plant fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Dayao said nitrogen is one of the main nutrients required by plants. Although the atmosphere is composed of 78-percent nitrogen, plants cannot readily utilize the gas as nutrient. It has to be converted into a form that can be used by the plants.

Traditionally, farmers apply chemical nitrogen like urea to their crops, but sometimes, chemical fertilizers do more harm than good. Synthetic fertilizers can make the soil acidic, degrading its fertility.

In the long run, they pollute the soil, air and water table. Aside from these, most of the chemical fertilizers available in the country, particularly urea, are imported. With the current peso-dollar exchange rate, the prices of these fertilizers are exorbitant for farmers.

The advantage of using Bio-N is that it provides the nitrogen needed by plants without harming the environment. The Azospirillum in Bio-N converts the nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that can be readily used by the plant.

Rice and corn plants become robust with Bio-N and since microorganisms, like bacteria, are natural components of the environment, this inoculant does not damage the soil. Most of all, it helps increase harvest, Dayao said.

It is cheaper than chemical fertilizers because Bio-N is made from local materials. The bacterium in Bio-N is isolated from the common talahib. Farmers can save a considerable amount by substituting or supplementing Bio-N with chemical nitrogen.

He explained that a pack of urea now costs P44, while Bio-N costs only P30 and is enough to apply for 20 kilograms of rice or 3 kilograms corn seeds. In 1 hectare, a farmer will need only five packs of Bio-N.

Biocon promotes growth with marked increases in yield ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent, while reducing the use of chemical fertilizers by 30 percent to 50 percent, he said.

Biocon is currently being used in selected areas covered by the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani (GMA) Corn Program in Mindanao, Central Luzon, the Ilocos region and Cagayan Valley. It is now under evaluation of the UPLB and PhilRice experts for wider use in the GMA Rice Program, Dayao said.

With Bicol emerging this year as among the top rice-producing regions in the country with the wide use of hybrid palay seeds, he said using bio-fertilizers would further boost the region’s production.

A hybrid-rice variety, also referred to as the F1, is the direct product of crossing two genetically different parents. In hybrids, the positive qualities of both parents are combined, resulting in a phenomenon called “hybrid vigor” or “heterosis” that results in better reproductive characteristics, Dayao said.

These factors result in higher yields than ordinary rice by 15 percent, and with proper management, farmers harvest up to 240 cavans per hectare per season or 12 tons per hectare per year, Dayao explained.

The entire Bicol region had a total of about 291,000 hectares of land devoted to rice that contributed almost a million metric tons of the staple food to the country’s overall production per year.

Most of these areas, however, are still using ordinary rice variety and synthetic fertilizers. Certainly, when the DA is able to expand the coverage of the hybrid varieties and use of bio-fertilizers in the region, Dayao said, “we expect more production.”

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