Thanking Ramon Barba (1939-2021)
Older Filipinos will remember a time when we would eagerly wait for the year’s mangoes to come around, usually around the month of May, and then watch the fruit disappear from the markets.
We would then have to wait another year for the next season.
Today, we get mangoes all year round, thanks to a plant scientist who discovered a way to make mango trees bear fruit three times a year.
This was National Scientist Ramon Barba, who passed away last week after a lifetime of finding ways to improve our plant industries.
As a young scientist, NS Barba wondered if there was a way to have mangoes throughout the year. The key was to induce the trees to flower, even out of the regular season, which would then lead to fruiting.
Traditionally, mango tree growers already knew that by burning leaves under a mango tree, they could induce flowering, but the process was tedious and not very practical for large orchards. Different parts of plants, including the leaves, contain ethylene, a gas that is released when the plant parts are burned. Ethylene induces not just flowering but also ripening of fruits, which is why unripe fruits turn yellow more quickly if stored with already ripe ones.
While doing his Master’s degree in the United States, NS Barba researched on the use of plant growth regulators and he thought about how these chemicals might be used to induce flowering in mangoes. When he returned to the Philippines, he was able to convince a private company, Quimara Farms, to let him experiment on a way to induce flowering in mangoes. He used two chemicals and the one that brought results, dramatic ones, was potassium nitrate, mixed with water.
Potassium nitrate is also known as saltpeter or, in Filipino-Spanish, salitre, a substance found also in fertilizers and gunpowder. It is also used to process pork into ham and tocino.
His experiments worked, allowing mango trees to fruit three times a year without adverse effects on the trees. The fruits tended to be smaller but the taste was the same, and the trees would continue to produce fruits for many years.
NS Barba didn’t even bother to patent his discovery … until he was told that someone else had done that. He got a lawyer, the late Sen. Jose Diokno, and was able to contest the patent, which was awarded to him but he never commercialized the process, allowing it to be used freely.
Besides discovering potassium nitrate to allow more frequent fruiting of mango, currently our third leading exported fruit, NS Barba also improved the propagation of more than 40 other plants—fruits, ornamentals, plantation crops, forest trees, and even aquarium plants.
Reading about NS Barba’s work with so many plants reminded me of how we undervalue plants, which supply us not just food but also medicines, flowers, essential oils, even fabrics (cotton, silk, our famous piña). And then there are abaca face masks, which effectively block the COVID virus and yet are ecologically-friendly in that they can be reused. If only the government would just support its mass production instead of favoring overpriced imports.
We will need more plant scientists like NS Barba but this won’t happen if we don’t recognize the importance of plant scientists for the nation. Agricultural schools throughout the country are experiencing drops in enrollment because young Filipinos, and their parents, just don’t recognize the importance of our plant and animal industries.
Contrast the situation in China, where scientists are highly respected. When agronomist Yuan Longping died last May, thousands of Chinese lined up in the streets to pay their respects. Yuan was perhaps the most loved Chinese scientist in contemporary times because his work on high-yielding hybrid rice saved millions of Chinese from chronic rice shortage and starvation.
I learned only recently that Yuan Longping also came to the Philippines to help develop hybrid rice suited for local conditions. His sponsor was a local “Tsinoy” business person who invested his own money for Yuan, with little government support.
As a national scientist, Doctor Barba is entitled to state honors and burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, but it will be more meaningful to remember him by talking more about his contributions to science, including mangoes all year round, in textbooks and in schools, and to inspire young people to consider the agricultural sciences for college.
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