Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Seeds for mankind

The following is my summary of a good manuscript, "Seeds for Mankind", written and produced by the International Seed Federation (ISF), May 2002.

A. Intro

Modern Plant Breeding
Two-step process: (a) creation of genetic variability, (b) selection of cultivars for specific purposes
Use the laws of heredity (discovered by Mendel, 1856) and statistics (developed by Fisher and Pearson, around 1860)

B. Objectives of Plant Breeding

1. Productivity: about 30-60% of yield increases is due to genetic improvementHardiness/Yield 2. Stability: show more adaptability than low-yielding oldervarieties
3. Diseases and Pest Resistance: by using existing resistance in species, and bygenetic engineering

4. Biodiversity, in particular:
(a) Crop genetic diversity – bet. 6,000 to 7,000 new varieties are protectedannually in the UPOV member states,
(b) Biotape protection – preservation of places where species live

5. Product Quality, in particular:
(a) Technical quality – processibility of the raw material,
(b) Food quality – ability of food to keep sensory characteristics and physical qualities under given conditions

6. Crop Management: for crop protection and minimizing soil tillage
Regional Adaptation: facilitate the introduction of new promising crops toother regions of the world.

C. Production and Marketing of High Quality Seed

Too often, new and better varieties released by plant breeders are notproduced and commercialized to farmers.Seed Production: maintain genetic quality, maintain seed viability and healthSeed Marketing: market research à seed promotion à seed pricing à seeddistribution.

D. Main Actors of the Seed Chain

Basic research: both the public and private sectorsVarietal development: over the long-term, private sector should do thisSeed production, processing and marketing: private sector; govt. to improveinfra, tax incentives, creditQuality control: private seed companies with govt. supervision

E. Short Discussion of the Paper

Content: heavy and completeClarity: reader-friendly even for non-scientists.
Economic sense: very good. To quote its conclusion, “the public sector should refrain from being active in the competitive area… Governments should focus on their roles as regulators and developers of infrastructures.”

Monday, June 19, 2006

Caught in a flash flood

There are 2 routes, both unpaved, from the barrio proper to our farm in Pangasinan. One is via the old barangay road (about 1.7 kms), the other via the new and wide private road in the "Zion mountain" adjacent to ours (about 2.5 kms). In the former, it's not hilly, mild ascent, but the road is narrow, you will have to pass a creek (that becomes a river during flash floods), and there's one protruding section, the top of the big drainage culvert, where smaller vehicles will have difficulty crossing. In the new private road, no creek to cross, no protrusion to negotiate, the road is wide, but it's longer, winding and hilly.

When I drive my pick-up to the farm, I always take the new and private road since there is less potential damage to my car's belly and chassis; also, the view here is more beautiful than the old barangay road. I can also show my guests and visitors the station of the cross in the "Zion mountain".

Last Saturday, my wife Ella and her 2 lady officemates joined me when I went to the farm. I drove my old (9 years old) but reliable Mitsubishi L-200 pick-up. It was hot the whole day, so when some cloud formed up over our head, I thought that it won't fall as a strong rain, more of drizzles. People say that what kills the mouse is when it thought that the cat nearby is blind and has lost is sense of smell, only to realize later that he was wrong. And so wrong was I in that assumption.

By the time we packed our things to leave the farm around 5:30pm, strong rains have fallen, and my non-4WD pick up can no longer climb a hill to the private road due to the muddy soil. No other option but take the old barangay road. We managed to go out about 400 meters away, until we reached the protruding big culvert; by that time, the rains started to weaken. I stopped the car, got out, and along with our farm caretaker, Mang Endring, we put stones around the protrusion so my pick-up's belly won't touch the huge hump. Just when I thought we only have a few minutes more work to do, the water in the canal suddenly rose, becoming stronger, bringing down with it uprooted plants and light driftwoods. It's a flash flood, and the water is gushing straight to my parked pick-up! The waters have come from the uplands, coming down fast and strong.

Mang Endring alerted me immediately that it's a flash flood and I should back out quick! While backing out, the flood water has already reached my car's bumper, pushing it back further. I made a wrong maneuver and my right rear wheel nearly fell in a hole where the flood water exits! Mang Endring told me to move forward a bit and maneuver back to the left. I managed to drive the car out of the hole, but by this time, some flood waters have reached the radiator and car engine, indicators for engine oil and heater were lighting up and out!

Finally, I was able to steer the car backwards again and out of the flood's way, but this time, the left rear wheel fell on a rice field. I tried moving forward, but the left rear wheel was already stuck in the mud, the right rear wheel was turning and spewing out smoke, and the car engine too was spewing out some hot smoke! I stopped the engine, got out of the car, and Mang Endring and I discussed what to do next.

We decided that Mang Endring will go out to some folks who live nearby (about 400 meters away) to ask for help. This time, the rains have stopped, the downpour was no more than 25 minutes I think. I talked to Ella and her officemates while waiting for the flash flood to subside, and the men to come. In a few minutes, Mang Endring plus 3 men and 2 young boys came. The father of the 2 young boys wanted to help but he was not feeling well, so he sent his 2 kids to help.

First task was to get the car out of the rice field. The cooled engine + 4 men and 2 boys pushing the pick-up made the task easy and quick. So my car is now out of the rice field, alright! Two more tasks: how to cross the huge drainage culvert, and how to move past a current of onrushing flood water which was still strong, as the narrow road has become a canal. The stones that Mang Endring and I put around the culvert earlier have been totally pushed down by the flash flood, so we have to gather again a new round of small rocks, stones and pebbles. The 2 young boys were of great help here, gathering pebbles and sand on a sack, back and forth. By this time, it was already past 7pm, it was dark, and my car headlight guiding the men in the job.

After several attempts, my car was able to cross the big drainage culvert; hence, only 1 task left: brave the current of on-rushing water, then a slight uphill on an uneven and muddy road, and the car should be able to work its way out of the muds and water. The weaker water current enabled the car to move past the waters, but it got stuck again in the mud on the slight ascent. Here comes the men and the boys again, and the car finally got out.

A few muddy areas down and the car moved like a drunk man walking zigzag. We reached the place of the men, they got off. Since I know them all, they also know me, they did not really ask for anything. I have a bottle of Matador brandy, some big bangus (milkfish), and little cash. They gladly accepted the liquor and the bangus, but declined on the cash, so I insisted on it. They laughingly accepted all our gifts, and I told them jokingly, "I'll do it again ha? Get stuck in the mud, cross the culvert hump, challenge the flash flood current, and you all come again?" To which they gladly replied, "Yes, but next time, you do it around midnight and we'll still come!"

Further down, the waters in the creek was still high. I estimated that the water should be around knee-deep only. On a 2nd gear, my pick-up braved the water, but to my surprise, the headlight suddenly went out (it got submerged!), and went back again after the lights and car got out of the water.

Well, we're now safe, back to the barrio. After having been stuck in mud and caught in a flash flood for 2 hours, my wife and her 2 officemates were very hungry when we reached the barrio, at Mang Endring's house, around quarter to 8pm. A hearty meal of chicken adobo with santol and coconut meat (buko) as dessert for dinner helped to erase the worries a few hours ago.

During and after the experience, I have always thought that had there been plenty of organic matter and terraces that absorb plenty of rainfalls, flash floods wouldn't be as strong as this one for a short but heavy downpour.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On flash floods

There are many types of floods, but offhand, I can think only 3 of them: still flood, flash flood, and lahar. The first is what you see in low-lying areas (like Espana ave. in Manila); the second are those fast, cascading strong waters on rivers and canals; the third is sand + water (various mixtures, could be up to 80% of sand, only 20% water), prominent on areas that experience volcanic eruption like Mt. Pinatubo.

Mt. Pinatubo's sand deposit has hardened already, so we do not see lahar flows anymore in central luzon during the rainy season. Still flood could pester us because they occur on areas where there is often high population density, so the people can hardly move and small vehicles cannot pass through them. But still flood don't bring down with them your house or your car; it's just that with heavy downpour, the drainage cannot expurgate the rain water fast enough onto the canals, so there is temporary "lake" that is being created.

What people cringe about are flash floods. You see them on tv -- strong waters cascading on rivers and bringing down with them logs and plants, houses and small structures, farm animals, even people and vehicles. As strong waters rampage down, they also redraw river banks as soft soil on river banks fall down, so the river becomes wider.

In my treehouse in the farm, whenever I get trapped there by strong rains, I just watch a nearby creek suddenly turn into a wild river. I see the flood water rising inch by inch, minutes by minutes. Occassionally, we (along with our farm caretaker) could hear some loud "bangs" from there -- they turn out to be logs and/or uprooted roots of trees being transported down by the strong waters, and when they hit some big solid rocks, that's the loud bang or noise created. Since we watch on the 2nd floor, our view of the cascading river is quite good.

And since our farm is somewhere midland, I can only imagine the damage to crops, even houses, in the lowlands, before the flash flood would exit to and be silenced by a bigger body of water, the sea.

About half to one hour after the strong downpour has stopped, the wild river goes back to an ordinary creek. The muddy and wavy waters return to colorless water. Yeah, the flash floods have wiped out most of the impurities in the riverbeds and riverbanks. The crawling vines, the dark green algae, the decaying fallen leaves, and so on. And then you realize that flash floods have some positive results after all. And those huts and weak houses that the flash floods have knocked down is nature's way of culling the weak and non-durable. Also nature's way of saying that "riverbanks are for plants and water, not for houses". Nature makes this message clearer than "government warnings".

So, if typhoons' strong winds wipe off even temporarily the heavy air pollution deposit in urban areas, flash floods also wipe off even temporarily the obstructions and impurities in riverbeds and riverbanks. And if you gather big stones for whatever construction needs -- like our various stone terraces construction in hilly and sloping parts of the farm -- the flash floods expose the big stones as they have scraped off the small stones and sand. So, gathering the big stones is easier.

But overall, flash floods are more harmful than beneficial. That is why rainwaters should seep in the soil as much as possible so that flash floods will be minimized. From my experience, building lots of stone terraces on sloping lands really help a lot in controlling and minimizing flash floods. You put lots of organic matter (dried and fallen leaves, plants, tree branches, etc.) as filling materials, you cover them with soil. When strong rains fall, the terraced soil act like huge sponges gulping in as much water as they can, and release water down as little as possible. And the growth of plants and trees on those terraced soil are also fantastic. They have lots of organic matter and trapped water deposit in their roots.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

On rains

It's cloudy and the sky's a bit dark this afternoon as I squat here in my sister's office somewhere in the middle of a 50+ storey building in makati. I pondered, why not write something about rains? It's late May anyway, and the only government agency of hope (Pag-asa :-)) says it's officially rainy season this part of the month.

Earlier, I have thought that when typhoon Caloy 2 weeks ago dumped tons and drums of rains from Mindanao up to the Visayas, Bicol and southern Tagalog regions, 'twas the start of rainy season already. I was wrong. Of course it was bad that Caloy killed many Pinoys in the Visayas and Bicol, but Caloy also drenched the parched earths of nearby provinces and regions within the perimeter distance of its wings. These included the central and western visayas, island provinces of southern tagalog, and central and northern luzon. Yeah, if you're a typhoon, you can kill some people, but you also give life and respite from heat to many other people, animals and crops.

What I like about rains and typhoons aside from the obvious benefits of drenching and irrigating parched plants, crops and trees, is that rains and strong winds wipe off even temporarily, the thick smog and smoke of vehicle, industrial and household pollution, over the skies of congested cities. That's why it's nice to "smell" the air of urban manila immediately after a strong typhoon.

Strong rains may cause flooding in low-lying areas, other areas where drainage was clogged by garbage, sand, stones, other obstructions. But strong rains also help in unclogging canals, drainage, of those obstructions, wipe out stagnant and nostril-assaulting smell of near-dead canals.

On the part of motorists and drivers, the rains are some sort of an equalizer. Hot-tempered heads cool down; fast-blastin' cars are fewer because almost everybody is careful and slowing down. Well, for one, when the streets are flooded, you don't know where the large potholes are. But someone told you (that's me, most likely, hehe) that government took away at least P15 out of around P41 per liter of premium gasoline that you just paid at the gas station, and you wonder why there are still many potholes in the roads. The tax money went down the drainage? Hmmm....

Until about less than a decade ago, when May comes, the rains almost always come, with or without a typhoon. Nowadays, the rains would come early only when there are typhoons. That is, no typhoons, no early rains. Last year, one of the "driest" years I can remember, there wasn't much rain. Just some of the explicit proof of "global warming" perhaps that many people and environmentalist talk about.

Btway, the same group of environmentalists who complain of ground water over-extraction and global warming also oppose the construction of many golf courses. They say that during summer, those greeneries are a-gulping drums upon drums of water everyday. Yeah right, but precisely that those greeneries are gulping drums upon drums of water that they are useful during the rainy season. If those golf courses are basketball stadiums or tennis covered courts or malls and subdivisions, they'll be cemented. The rains fall on hard pavement, go straight to the drainage, onto a canal, onto a river or ocean. See, no replenishment of ground water extracted. Since those greeneries are not cemented, the grasses and trees are like thirsty monsters that gulp in as much water as they can, a big portion of which has filtered onto the ground water table.

Makes me think further, that people should minimize cementing their surroundings, especially around their houses. Yeah it can be muddy when it rains, but there's also less street flooding as the open space gulp in a big portion of the rainwater. Also, if you planted trees near your house, chances are that when those trees have grown big, they're like incredible hulk cracking and destroying those cemented walkways as their roots grow bigger and higher.

And finally, the romantic side of the rains. Our wedding give aways last December was a CD that contains 10 of our favorite songs, with a paragraph discussion of each song why we chose them. Yeah, you guess it, many of those 10 chosen songs are from my favorite rock bands -- Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Beatles, hehehe. I included one Pinoy song -- "Tuwing umuulan at kapiling ka" (originally by Basil Valdez, our version sung by Eraserheads band). Imagine you're in my no-walls treehouse, on the 2nd floor, atop a big tree, the rains are pouring hard and the winds are cold, and you're hugging your gf/bf or spouse as you watch the rains and the waving leaves of trees around you, what a feeling, right? Awwww! hehehe.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Forever forest

“Forever forest” is possible in both protection and production forest. Protection forest is mainly for watershed protection and biodiversity conservation, while production forest is mainly for lumber and wood production and other forest products extraction.

In production forest, there are two major approaches to achieve a “forever forest”. First is in the case of mono-crop culture (single-tree specie only) or few-crops which have same maturity period. You plant and harvest the trees in rotation, so that every year there is tree harvest and tree planting on the same block or area. This is done by sub-dividing the forest plantation area into blocks.

For instance, the chosen specie is eucalyptus; or if using two-crops culture, eucalyptus and gmelina. With good forestry and silvicultural practices (from seed selection to good seedling production to pruning and thinning), the trees are to be harvested after 12 years. So the whole area is to be subdivided into 12 blocks. On the first year of operation, only block 1 will be planted with eucalyptus (at the start of regular rainy season, June) while the other 11 blocks can be planted with vegetables, corn, bananas, or other short-duration crops; or grazing land for goats, cows, other farm animals. This is to make the land productive and earning. On the second year, block 2 will be planted with either eucalyptus or gmelina, leaving only 10 blocks for agricultural and animal husbandry activities, and so on.

On the 12th year, the whole area will be planted with eucalyptus (and gmelina if deciding on two-crops culture). On the 13th year, say January, block 1 will be harvested -- all trees, clear-cutting method. Just like one harvests all rice or all corn plantation. Fallow period (do nothing, just clear the area) for a few months. By June of same year, start planting again in the whole block. And the cycle is repeated forever.

One can decide to shift to other species, say longer-duration but better-price species like mahogany and narra. Just re-block the whole area piecemeal, or buy or lease the adjoining lands and expand the number of blocks from 12 to 25 or 30.

The second approach is selective cutting when having many species of varying maturities, various heights, on the same production forest area. For instance, you introduce a few short-duration trees like gmelina and eucalyptus in an area where the predominant forest vegetation are dipterocarp species like lauan, tanguile, yakal, narra, teak, kamagong, molave, and so on. Selective cutting or logging can result in “forever forest” since only mature, over-mature, and sick or defective trees will be removed, leaving the other trees nearby to grow taller and bigger.

In a multi-species, multi-layer forest, smaller and younger trees hardly have access to full sunlight, as well as have low access to minerals and nutrients in the soil, as the bigger and older trees tend to get all the space for sunlight and root extraction of soil nutrients. Once these mature and over-mature trees are removed, spaces for sunlight and soil nutrients extraction are freed for the shorter and younger trees to enjoy and expand. Sick and defective trees, even if they are not yet matured, have to be removed too, to prevent them from harboring the pests or diseases that affected them, from multiplying and expanding to other trees.

In this kind of forest ecosystem, vines and shrubs, especially thorny ones, abound. Unless they are known to have any medicinal or industrial uses, they should be removed from the trees as they tend to choke the trunks and climb up to the top, competing with the trees’ leaves for sunlight. The stronger and longer vines also cling from one tree to another, pulling the weaker and thinner trees towards bigger ones, depriving the former the opportunity to grow straight.

When a portion or the whole of the plantation area is properly terraced with rocks and big stones, dried leaves and branches, as well as fallen and dead smaller trees will decay and become rich topsoil someday, and average elevation of the land should be increasing by several centimeters every year. Such regular and cumulative increases in topsoil should make the entire plantation even more productive.

Agro-forestry in a multi-species, multi-layered forest environment can be practiced in a very limited way. For sure, only those plants and crops that thrive on poor and limited sunlight will flourish. Among such plants are orchids, wild mushrooms, ginger, and rattan. These plants can be cultured for commercial production, or at least for household consumption.

A production forest can also be used for forest park and eco-tourism resort. People, especially urbanites, love watching big trees. Instead of cutting those mature and over-mature trees for wood and lumber, they can be retained to grow older, and the forest developer can make money from the resort (entrance fee, rental of cottages, souvenir shops and restaurants, etc.). Of course some trees far from the main park can be cut for the wood and lumber needs of the resort’s cottages and furnitures.

“Forever forest” are better attained under private ownership of forest land. Competition among forest and mountain resort developers and owners will drive them to keep bigger and healthier trees, to introduce innovations like canopy walks (a walk atop of one tree to another via hanging and rope bridges), well-maintained creeks and waterfalls.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Underground water and cemented lands

Underground, fresh water, is one of nature's best gifts to humanity.
All that man has to do is find a place where this water comes out naturally -- through a spring, or dig a hole undergound, put steel tubes into it, and pump the water up, manually or mechanically.

As human population expands in all countries and continents of the world, more water pumps are constructed as water from rivers and lakes via water utilities become less sufficient for the expanding population especially in urban areas. This continued extraction of underground water decreases the water table below. This process can be mitigated or controlled if rain waters are not hindered to penetrate the soil and rocks below, later on reaching the water table underground.

As civilizations improve and economic activities expand, more and more lands are being cemented or covered by bricks and cobblestones. Examples are roads and highways, parking lots, sidewalks, wide and sprawling malls. Here, rain waters fall on cement and hard surfaces, heading towards the drainage, into creeks and rivers, and ultimately into the seas and oceans. Hence, a big portion of rainfalls do not penetrate the soil and rocks anymore, and underground water that experience heavy withrawal through strong water pumps, are not replenished.

Among the long-term negative impact of this situation are as follows. One is salt water intrusion of water tables in areas near seas and oceans. As more undergound water is pumped out, bigger vacuum is created, which allows salt water to flow in trickles. Salted water is now experienced in a number of cities and communities that rely on underground water for their household needs.

Two, the geological foundation of a city or community becomes less stable. As more vacuum is created underground due to decreasing water table, moderate to strong earthquakes can shake the soil and rock foundation of structures built above them. Not that buildings will collapse -- unless there is intensity 7 or stronger earthquakes, but buildings and other structures will experience mild cracks in its floors and walls even in mild earthquakes. Sometimes, "sinking" structures have been observed.

One solution to these problems is to have more open spaces and non-cemented land in cities and communities where large underground water pumping is practiced. Many people, especially environmentalists will not like this, but more golf courses and their grass-and-trees surfaces are actually helping the underground water replenish the sinking water table. Also, old and cemented but dilapidated parking lots should not be cemented again. Better use crushed stones to prevent the surface from getting muddy during the rainy season, as crushed stones allow spaces for rainwater to seep in below the ground.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Free market and the environment

Some proposed answers I gave to a friend a year ago in her school assignment...

(1) On requiring polluters to install the latest technologies:

"Requiring polluters to install latest technologies" is not exactly along free-market philosophy. The state can just institute "polluter pays" law and implement it. So, adoption of modern technologies will become "a natural thing to do" for firms, especially the heavy polluters. The state is not exactly telling them what technologies to use, but telling them "these are the penalties if you exceed this particular pollution level".

Of course, consumers should be ready to pay higher price for the products and services of environment-friendly firms. They reap the benefits in terms of cleaner air, grounds and waters.

Mandating that companies "install the latest technology" is too dictatorial. The fact is, what constitutes "the latest technology" is often in dispute. We should not let the politicians and government bureaucrats make that decisions for us. Themore government mandates, the more inflexible and rigid the economy becomes. A far better approach (though not necessarily the very best among market alternatives) is to simply define the required, reasonable,science-based outcome and within those constraints, let private entities figure out how each can do their part in their own way. That's the origin of the "tradeable permits" concept that many market proponents have advocated for dealing with environmental problems that often have their root in pollution of commonly-held or already-socialized resources like the air or a large body of water.

(2) Are the goals of economic efficiency and distributional equity, at odds with one another?

Over the short- and medium-term, Yes, equity and efficiency are at odds with one another. Take coastal resource environment preservation. Under a "public ownership of the coastlines", huge fisherfolk communities flock on it and since "the ocean belongs to everybody", anybody can harvest from its resources, and anyone can use it as wide garbage dumping ground. Since anyone can come in anytime to harvest the fish, some guys would beat their neighbors and get the fish whilethey're not mature yet since their neighbors might beat them in catching the fish later on if they postpone harvesting the fish now. There's equity here, but no efficiency.

The coastlines under "private ownership and stewardship", like the thousands of resort owners fronting white sand beaches of Boracay, Puerto Galera, Pagudpud, Panglao Island (Bohol), etc. Not everyone can come in anytime, anywhere, and harvest the fish or throw their garbage on the coastlines. Result is a cleaner ocean, rehabilitating corals, expanding the stock of colorful and diverse marine life, attractingtourists, creating jobs (resort/hotel cooks, waiters, sweepers), boatmen, etc. Here, equity is sacrificed in exchange for efficiency in preserving coastal resources.

(3) On imposing emission standards on greenhouse gases from new automobiles sold in the state.

That ruling is too limiting, and too statist.Although it will help attain the stated goal -- to minimize greenhouse gases and pollution from vehicles, both old and new -- there are other options that can help attain the same objective. Among them:
(1) high petroleum tax -- the more gas-guzzler a vehicle, the more taxes the owner of that vehicle will pay. Compare a compact car that runs on 15 kms/liter vs. an SUV that runs on 5 kms/liter. Here, the latter will pay 3x petrol tax than the former.
(2) civil society or citizen action -- private/residential villages, private schools and campuses, country clubs and recreational places, can ban smoke-belchers from entering their vicinity. This is currently being done by some villages and schools here in Manila.