Science against poverty
Medicines from poisonous sea snails? Gasoline substitutes from coconut oil?
These were just two of many local scientific research findings that drew “Ganoon ba (Is that so)?” reactions during the 35th annual meeting of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) on July 10-11.
NAST is the Philippines’ highest advisory body on science and includes 13 National Scientists and 49 National Academicians from the natural and social sciences, mathematics, agriculture, engineering and medicine. The annual meeting includes many other scientists who are not (yet) NAST members, especially younger ones, presenting papers and getting awards for their research.
This year’s meeting highlighted a very practical application of scientific R&D (research and development): addressing poverty. The first day’s presentations were by economists, a horticulturist, a marine scientist, a chemist, an industrial engineer, and a physician, all showing how science and technology can be harnessed to reverse the decline of the Philippine manufacturing sector, a decline seen as a root cause of widespread and persistent poverty.
The day started with a keynote address delivered by Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio M. Balisacan, who is also the director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority. Balisacan is himself a National Academician, and an economist, belonging to the NAST’s tiny social science division (which includes an anthropologist writing for the Inquirer).
Balisacan reminded the audience about how far we’ve lagged behind neighboring countries with our neglect of the manufacturing sector and how this hampers the country’s ability to reduce poverty. Our economy needs to move from being consumption-driven (mainly buying other countries’ manufactured goods) to one driven by investments in the manufacturing sector. These investments catalyze economic growth by creating more jobs.
Just as important is the development of a manufacturing sector that goes for higher value products in a global supply chain. That’s where the scientists can come in. The science and technology sector is also vital for developing new manufacturing technologies, and, through educational institutions, training the succeeding generations to keep moving R&D forward.
After the keynote speech, the papers that followed were recaps of a series of roundtables organized by the NAST last year around this theme of reviving the manufacturing sector. I will focus on two papers that demonstrate how scientists can contribute to this endeavor.
One, by Dr. Marie Antonette J. Menez, director of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, describes the potentials of marine “biofactories” for manufacturing. It starts out with a reminder that the Philippines is a center of marine biodiversity, and the world’s fifth largest fish producer. Yet, the 6 million Filipinos who depend on fishing are among the poorest of the poor.
Marine biofactories can develop even from fish discards—for example, bangus scales converted into “pearl essence” used for lipstick, nail polish, and ceramic glaze. Tilapia skins, it turns out, can be converted into soft and supple leather. Tuna discards can be used to extract omega-3 oils, good for cardiovascular health.
Fish wastes can also yield stable biofuels. Remember when everyone was talking about biofuel? The idea was to grow more plants that can yield oils to convert into petroleum substitutes. But the problem with plant biofuel production is that it uses up land that can instead be planted with food crops. Converting fish wastes into biofuel will not involve this kind of displacement of arable land.
Menez also cited specific groups of marine species with economic potential, beginning with algae. There’s carrageenan, used for pet food, water gels, meat and dairy fillers. Sargassum, the brown algae you find littering our beaches, can yield anti-inflammatory and anticancer drugs. Seaweeds, like the fish waste products, can also be converted into biofuel.
Marine invertebrates are not just food but also sources of medicines. Venomous marine snails have chemicals that can be substitutes for morphine, which is so important for pain management in patients with cancer. Other marine invertebrates yield chemicals that can be used as antibiotics, anticoagulants, antioxidants. Sea cucumbers (trepang, a culinary favorite among the Chinese) also have potentials as medicines and personal care products.
The potentials seem endless, a point made more dramatic when Menez mentioned that we have 13,100 species of sea snails, which can yield up to 2 million different chemicals.
And what’s most exciting about the potentials of marine biofactories is that there are now mariculture projects involving communities, with some successful projects in the poverty-stricken Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
From the marine biofactories, we moved to coconut products in a paper presented by Dr. Fabian Dayrit, dean of the Ateneo de Manila School of Engineering and Science. Like the fishing communities, coconut farmers are among the poorest Filipinos, exploited by coconut landlords and copra-processing businessmen.
Dayrit explained that copra processing dates back to the 19th century and that it’s time we moved to products with higher value. Virgin coconut oil and coco sugar are probably the most familiar to Filipino consumers, but there is an astounding number of other products that can be derived from coconut oil, from glycerine (an important industrial chemical) to medicines, biofuels and bioplastics.
The most impressive chart Dayrit had was one showing what “value added” means. Crude coconut fetches $830 per metric ton, but if this oil can be processed, its value increases, reaching up to $3,900 per metric ton when isopropyl myristate is derived from the oil.
Dayrit talked about how our neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, have their oleochemical industries (mainly palm, but also with coconut) are integrated from planting to processing, with government support. In contrast, investors are reluctant about the Philippines because the government has no clear long-term plans for developing our coconut industry.
The government claims that our being a poor country is why we don’t have enough funds for science, not recognizing that unless more support is provided to scientific R&D, we will remain poor.
Then, too, there is politics involved. Dayrit mentioned in passing the controversies around the coconut levy funds. These were mainly squeezed out of the copra farmers from 1973 to 1982, supposedly as “forced savings” for the families so the funds could be used to develop the coconut industry. Instead, Eduardo Cojuangco used levy funds to buy into United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB). Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the levy funds were public money and therefore the UCPB shares bought with those funds are also public property or, more specifically, the coconut farmers’.
Cojuangco appealed the ruling but on Wednesday, the day we were listening to Dayrit’s paper on the coconut industry, the Supreme Court upheld its 2012 ruling.
Let’s see now if some of the coconut farmers’ money will go into R&D that will benefit them.