COMMENTARY: Pablo, climate change and banana production in the Davao region

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/10 January) — Typhoon Pablo, an extreme climate event, showed the tight grip and control of weather and climate over agriculture, livelihood and socioeconomics. It showed us, as it has in the past, that we are at the mercy of a tempestuous Mother Earth.


Pablo caused enormous losses and damages in Mindanao. The banana plantations in the Davao region, particularly in Compostela Valley suffered greatly and bore nearly 8 billion pesos in economic losses. Initial images from the disaster-stricken areas showed broken banana plant trunks, flooded and waterlogged fields, and lost bunches, destroying any chances of yield recovery. Exports to other countries could not be sustained because of the lack of supply.


Disasters have a tremendous impact on the banana industry: long-term droughts or El Nino, extreme rainfall events, or large-scale outbreaks of pests or diseases can cause losses in yield and income for growers. The new threat is climate change, which international scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believe may increase the frequency and severity of climate extremes.


Will climate change have adverse effects on banana production in the country? The Philippines is already the third most at-risk country in the world to disasters, according to the 2011 and 2012 World Risk Index report. The Philippines is a country particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Climate change, manifested in long-term and permanent increases in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns, and sea level rise may continue to spell ill effects on the banana industry. The potential impacts to banana, a staple economic and food crop for Filipino families, need to be better understood in the face of future changes.


Climate Change in the Philippines


Climate change is predicted to bring an increase of temperatures and change in rainfall patterns. According to PAGASA, annual mean temperatures in all areas in the Philippines are expected to rise by 0.9 °C to 1.1 °C in 2020 and by 1.8 °C to 2.2 °C in 2050. To put those numbers concretely, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in Los Banos, Laguna, reports that a 1 degree increase in temperature can reduce rice yields by up to 10%. In the Davao Region, temperatures will rise by about 1 degree between now and 2035, and up to 2.5 degrees above the average around 2050.


Rainfall will change particularly in the March, April and May months with reductions of up to 10% in the region before 2035 and 22% in 2050, while the June-August rainy months will get even more rain. This means that while it is getting hotter, it may also be becoming drier, placing crops in stress. However in the rainy months, floods could also become more frequent. The impacts of climate change are predicted to have severe impacts on agriculture and subsequently food security in the developing regions of the world.


Effects of changes on banana


The banana has specific temperature ranges in the world where it can grow and it prefers warm climates with high annual rainfall. It usually grows in tropical areas where it is believed to have originated.


PAGASA historical climate data shows that mean temperatures in the Davao Region have increased by at least 1 degree Celsius since 1951. The average temperature in Davao City in 2010 was 28.3°C. While this falls within the optimum range for banana growing which is between 22 and 30 degrees or around 27°C, climate change is pushing temperatures closer to the upper limits of growing. Because banana grows in a specific range, temperature increases beyond 30°C mean that production may suffer because of heat stress on the plants, which lowers yield. High temperatures can also cause bad affects on banana quality and appearance, which is important for export bananas.


The projections of less rainfall can even affect irrigated plantations because they reduce or remove the source of irrigation water. However, drought damage occurs most often in non-irrigated banana areas because many small growers and subsistence farmers do not have the facilities for irrigation. A shortage of water results in small, under-filled bunches.


The climate projections of more rain in other months mean that there is the potential for more flooding and waterlogging. Waterlogging causes a reduction in yield and plant size because it restricts root growth and causes shallow root systems. According to Dr. Edna Aguilar of the University of the Philippines- Los Banos, waterlogging can hinder nutrient uptake and may cause greater susceptibility to diseases like Fusarium wilt. Bananas can tolerate up to 48 hours of flowing water, but standing water will kill adult plants.


Climate change also may influence the geographical distribution of plant diseases such as Black Sigatoka (BLS) whose spores are primarily distributed by rainfall. Already, about 25% of the cost of a box of bananas belongs to Sigatoka control. When lowland temperatures begin to rise, it is possible that banana farms seeking to expand their production will move to highland areas where temperatures are lower and soils are more productive. This could mean expansion into sensitive environmental areas. Forests are typically cleared for banana plantations and this has numerous detrimental effects including increased flooding and soil erosion. The negative impacts of expansion because of climate change also need to be taken into account.


Importance of banana and ways forward


Bananas are the world’s fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize. It is considered the most popular fruit in the world and over one trillion individual fruits are consumed every year. According to the Department of Agriculture, banana is considered the most important fruit crop in the country in terms of volume of production and export earnings.


The Philippine banana industry contributes significantly to the agriculture sector and to the economy in general. Banana production is a source of income and employment especially in the rural areas. In 2010, the Philippines produced 9 million metric tons of banana, making it the third largest producer in the world. Of this number, 3.8 million metric tons of bananas, or about 40% of production was from the Davao Region. More than 5.6 million smallholder farmers are dependent on the banana industry.


As the Davao Region is the center of banana growing in the country in terms of hectares of land planted with banana and production, it is thus also the most exposed and most sensitive to climate-related losses to banana yields.


The Davao Region should spearhead the stagnated discussion on House Bill 5478 on the development of a National Banana Research Center. Given the many years of expertise developed in the region, it has the potential to serve as a leader and adviser to other growers throughout the country and in the Southeast Asian region in the face of present and future hazards. The potential adverse effects of these changes should be studied further in order to prepare farmers to the adverse risks of climate change on such an important crop to Filipinos.


(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Andrea Monica Ortiz finished her Master in Environmental Science at the University of Copenhagen and Universitat fur Bodenkultur in Vienna, Austria in 2012. Her master thesis was “Climate Change Impacts on Banana Production in the Davao Region of the Philippines).