Agri’s missing link?
In a recent discussion with manufacturing champion Limuel Razo, I came upon what could be the missing element for boosting our agricultural exports dramatically.
At the outset, it’s worth noting that Thailand earns about $54 billion a year from agricultural exports (out of total export earnings of around $215 billion). Agricultural exports fetch about $40 billion for Malaysia (out of $176 billion total), $36 billion for Indonesia (out of $144 billion), and $15 billion for Vietnam (out of $170 billion). We made a measly $5 billion from our agricultural exports last year (out of total exports of $56 billion). Thailand’s farm export earnings alone nearly equal what we earn from all our exports combined.
Why are we so badly behind our neighbors? Mr. Razo may well have the answer. It’s called gamma ray treatment, also known as food irradiation, a process already widely used by our neighbors to prolong the shelf life of perishable farm products they export.
As a Philippine Science High School student in the 1960s, I recall an educational visit we made to the nearby Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC)—now the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute
(PNRI)—marked by that unique eggshell-like dome in Diliman, Quezon City. Food irradiation was a prominent feature in the briefing given us then. Fast forward 50 years later, and Thailand now has 13 gamma ray treatment facilities, Indonesia has 10, Vietnam 8, and Malaysia 5. Outside of Asean, China has 78 of them, India has 10, Japan has 6, Korea 3, Pakistan and Bangladesh each have 2, and Sri Lanka has 1. We have none.
Or one might say we have one-half, as the PNRI has allowed its gamma ray facilities to be diverted partly from their intended research use, to limited commercial service for food exporters.
Gamma rays kill bacteria by breaking the links that keep their DNA together, and pass readily through plastics, allowing products to be treated fully packaged. Induced changes at the molecular level kill the target organisms or render them incapable of reproduction. Exposure to gamma rays has thus become a widely used method for sterilizing or decontaminating various products, as with the right doses, the rays destroy bacteria and pests without any adverse effects on the products treated. A paper from the PNRI attests that four decades of scientific work have established the safety of irradiated food, earning the endorsement of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Currently, 50 countries accept irradiated food products, including the world’s biggest farm product importers. The introduction of irradiated ground beef in the United States since 2000, driven by serious concerns on food-borne illnesses caused by Salmonella and E. coli bacteria, boosted awareness and interest. Thailand has been exporting irradiated food to the United States, and Vietnam irradiates spices, herbs and dragon fruit for export. India irradiates onions, potatoes, mangoes and spices, among others. Promising applications in the Philippines include disinfestation and delay of ripening of mangoes and papayas; inhibition of spouting of onions, garlic and potatoes; microbial decontamination of spices and dried products; and insect disinfestation and extension of shelf life for rice and corn. Irradiation also has great potential for fresh vegetables, meat and meat products, frozen seafoods, hospital diets, and disaster foods. It is sought after for being better than the cancer-causing fumigant ethylene dibromide to eliminate microbes in spices, fruits and other foods. In fact, the PNRI’s part-time facility can meet only a tiny part of the tremendous commercial demand, and has had to reject numerous requests for food irradiation.
Meanwhile, large amounts of our fruit end up rotting, especially in Mindanao, and farmers suffer from depressed prices when everyone harvests at the same time. Gamma rays could be the answer, and, done right, could help uplift the plight of our farmers and their families. But we have to start by providing the facilities. While the PAEC/PNRI had an early start, our neighbors have since left us far behind on this—and look at the difference it has made for them.
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