How Pinoy scientist developed cocolisap-killer

Posted at 07/30/14 7:46 PM

Seaweeds used to fight scale insects

MANILA – A 15-year hiatus with an old flame led a scientist to re-discover a product to combat the dreaded "cocolisap."

Chemical engineer Jose Riga developed an affordable seaweed-fortified fertilizer that acts like a pesticide against the scale insect (SI) that has damaged thousands of coconut trees in Southern Tagalog.

The fertilizer that Riga manufactures comes from the common Philippine seaweed, also called sargassum or "guso" or "samo og sagbot" in Bisaya or "halamang dagat" in Tagalog.

Riga re-discovered the idea for the product after a chance meeting with an old flame early last year. She provided the business support he needed.

She has a degree in fisheries technology, and worked as a banker, development worker and grew a successful tablea business on the side.

Riga's extensive experience, initially as a research head in the '80s for a local agribusiness company and eventually a consultant for several multinational fruit growers and processors, aided in perfecting what could be the cocolisap's bane.

While working as a consultant, he developed a prototype of the seaweed fertilizer.

To make the fertilizer “edible” for plants, it had to be a carbohydrate. Riga developed a carbohydrate solution that can easily be “digested” by plants.

Come 1999, with a successful fertilizer product to boot, Riga started testing the Seacrop Foliar Fertilizer (SFF) in banana trees, a favorite of scale insects at that time. Years later, he raised enough cash to apply for a license from the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority. He named it so because "sea crop" denotes plants from the sea and "foliar" for foliage.

Several years later, Riga came at a crossroads. Despite the success of his prototype in the market, he declared bankruptcy. He blamed his bankruptcy on his eagerness to expand his business venture too soon.

In 2012, the UPLB Volunteers Against Coco Scale Insects asked him to help stop the spread of SI destroying plantations of coconuts in Laguna.

On the fronds of 2,000 sick coconut trees, Riga's team of six workers power-sprayed diluted SFF (one part SFF is to 99 parts water) directly onto the fronds and leaves. After a month, some coconut trees were visibly recovering because portions of their leaves turned green. The next two months yielded 1,600 trees with green leaves.

To Riga, the Laguna results attest to SFF's ability to combat scale insects by boosting the host plant's nutrition.

Scale insects weaken their host plants in several ways and Riga's fertilizer counters all of these.

First, the scale insects siphon the nutrient-rich sap of plants.

Second, it injects toxins into the plants while it sucks the sap thereby putting more demands on energy from plants.

Third, it reduces the leaf surface for sunlight penetration by its mass or mere presence and as it covers the leaves with a sooty mold and eventually turns leaves to yellow.

Fourth, scale insects are polyphagous (or able to feed on many kinds of food or hosts) and adapt to variable climates.

Riga believes that SFF strengthens the host plant by replacing its energy loss and feeding it with vital minerals, amino acids and vitamins. SFF's base solution is a modified molasses that makes it stick to the leaves (as long as it is untouched and remains dry for one hour after spraying) for a long time. SFF's efficacy has been tested and licensed by the government.

Aside from coconuts, Riga adds that SFF can also improve rice harvest significantly with minimal costs. Simply dip rice seeds in the SFF dilution for ten seconds before planting. His tests reveal that SFF also produced more whole grains. In one test he conducted, SFF raised the rice yield of 4.5 metric tons (MT) a hectare to 6.3 MT a hectare (or by an impressive 40 percent). He believes SFF can raise rice yield by an average of 32 percent.

For now, he wants to popularize the use of his affordable and natural seaweed-fortified fertilizer among Filipino farmers and cooperatives. SFF can supplement farmer incomes if farmers get training as sprayers and as marketers of SFF. Because the fertilizer is safe, farmers will not face any health risks as sprayers.

Riga warns that scale insects have already infested other fruit trees--lanzones in Laguna and Batangas, mangosteen in Quezon, sugar cane in Batangas, and pineapples in Leyte. SI have also attacked ornamentals such the red palm trees in Mindanao.