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Plant breeder looks at rice from space
by Paul M. Icamina
22-June-2012 Malaya
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Competitiveness is the key, said Dr. Eufemio T. Rasco Jr, Executive Director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).

“Our technological level might enable us to achieve sufficiency, but we need to prepare for the next stage, which is competitiveness and which is more difficult,” he said. “We need a new generation of technology not necessarily here now, but which we need to put together.”

One vehicle for that is the proposed Rice Academy at the PhilRice complex in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija.

“We want to encourage young farmers as their fathers near retirement,” said Dr. Manuel C. Regalado, PhilRice Deputy Executive Director for Research.

“And make rice farming more fun – and profitable,” said Dr. Karen Barroga, Chief of Development Communication. “Physical distance is no longer a barrier, there are many alternative routes to get the technology to the farmer.”

The research and training academy will be off and running in 2013 at a cost of P75 million for the first year. The idea is to provide training on the full cycle of rice farming under one roof, said Rasco, the country’s principal rice scientist who is no stranger to academe.

A member of the National Academy of Science and Technology, the country’s top advisory body on science and technology, Rasco was director of the Institute of Plant Breeding at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) and professor at UP Mindanao prior to his appointment to PhilRice.

He completed his Masters of Science in Agriculture at UPLB in 1974 as a scholar of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA). He obtained his PhD in Plant Breeding from Cornell University in the United States.

He was involved in various researches on vegetables, potato and sweet potato breeding and agronomy; development of underutilized crops; farming on slopes; genetically modified crops; and the sustainability of modern agriculture.

Rasco said PhilRice is looking at three legs of technology for rice farmers to stand on to be more competitive: one, biology (including biotechnology and genetic engineering); second, mechanization and automation; and third, Information Technology.

Information Technology, for example, will use satellite imagery to map rice areas.

“Now it’s mostly guesswork, we don’t know exactly how many hectares are planted to rice,” Rasco said. “If we know it, we can predict potential harvests, predict loses when typhoons strike. If we know it, we should not be hungry.”

The analytical tools are available, he said. Satellite images may be used to expand the handheld Leaf Color Chart now used by farmers to indicate a healthy rice plant in small plots. Satellite imagery can enhance the plots into hectares of ricefields into data that are analyzed to complement the Leaf Color Chart on the ground.

Rasco said PhilRice is looking at expanding the use of mobile telecommunication, including mobile phones, android applications, social networking and multimedia to reach not just farmers but even those remotely connected to farms, such as Filipinos working abroad who have the interest and the money to invest in rice growing to help their farming families.

“The basis in the future is knowledge, not just natural resources, and producing more rice out of increasingly limited land and water available,” he said. “There’s so much knowledge out there on how to use land and water efficiently.”

In the past, Rasco said, the thrust was to have more rice land cultivated and irrigated. “We are nearing the end of that, there’s no more rice areas left to expand cultivation. Today, we need to acquire, process and use information, like knowing the rice hectarage by satellite,” he said. The same technology can be used to monitor pest outbreaks in the future.

Then there’s biology, like rethinking the future by thinking green: breeding rice varieties that need low energy inputs; tapping biological control in managing pests; and biological fertilizers for supporting the nutritional needs of rice.

In 2010, the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics report, the national average spending on fuel and oil was P808 per hectare. Other costs included fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, labor and rents at an average P39,300; it is more expensive in irrigated areas.

To cut energy costs, new varieties will require less fertilizers, pesticides and water – without decreasing average yields. To reduce energy-related inputs, new varieties would be ready for harvest 100 days after sowing; current varieties mature from 108 to 118 days, needing more energy to grow.

In automation, Rasco said PhilRice will mass produce simple and affordable farm machineries. The target is to raise mechanization from half a horsepower per hectare today to at least 1.5 horsepower.

“There are lots of prototypes in the PhilRice laboratory and we’ll mass produce them, complete with interchangeable parts to make it cheaper much like the way we now assemble Toyotas. We will industrialize rice farming. It’s that simple: some machineries need only about 50 parts, including nuts and bolts.”

It will start “an entirely new industry,” he said. “It will be one giant step forward in farming.”

A fabrication plant will open at PhilRice in a year’s time at a cost of P75 million for the first year, about the same cost as starting up the Rice Academy.

“It will be seed money that rolls over for the mass production to be self-sustaining,” Rasco said. “It can be done with the right management and technology.”

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