Is tobacco the next ‘miracle crop’?






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CITY OF THE SAN FERNANDO — Tobacco has been a vilified plant and was certainly not regarded as a miracle crop, but all this is about to change as more practical and commercially viable uses are being discovered from this high-value crop.

And much of it is for agricultural use which means that the crop will no longer be the exclusive darling of cigarette manufacturers but of groups as diverse as agri-entrepreneurs, fishpond owners, fertilizer manufacturers and organic farmers.

The sight of green and healthy tobacco leaves under the noonday sun is enough to excite any tobacco farmer about high yields. But for agriculture researchers, tobacco could be so much more that is now becoming an emerging miracle crop and for good reason.

Tobacco waste like dust, tobacco stalks and discarded tobacco leaves are now promising components for various agricultural applications.

The National Tobacco Administration (NTA) said that tobacco is grown in 23 provinces spanning about 30,352 hectares. And with industry data showing that tobacco has recently emerged as one of the country's fastest growing crops, this means that there is enough tobacco for such agricultural applications.

Tobacco soil conditioner

Tobacco dust, which is generally produced during the commercial processing of tobacco, is now seen as a viable alternative soil conditioner and as an additional component to organic fertilizer. Tobacco dust, an agro-industrial waste, can be applied to the soil to recycle and replenish essential nutrients that have been depleted.

Such is the viability of tobacco dust that the NTA, in collaboration with government agencies, rolled out processed tobacco dust under the name Tobacco Dust Plus (TDP) as an environment-friendly pesticide and organic fertilizer. In 2014, the NTA started to commercially manufacture TDP in a plant in Sto. Tomas town in La Union.

Applied as a fertilizer, tobacco dust, in combination with organic compost, can serve as soil conditioner. A study by Sarah Shakeel of the Kinnaird College on tobacco dust showed that when applied to the soil, tobacco dust reintroduce nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium back into the soil that plants have consumed from the soil.

The study showed that tobacco dust is rich in nitrogen. Potassium and phosphorous which can provide essential nutrients to the soil and plant. Local data from the Department of Agriculture (DA) also showed that tobacco dust, when mixed with organic compost has positive effects on the growth of vegetable and house-plants due to its nitrogen content.

Studies showed that use of tobacco dust is an eco-friendly management strategy for soil management with negligible impact on the environment as it is organic and leaves no chemical residue.

Tobacco insecticide

The use of a tobacco as an insecticide is not a new thing. For hundreds of years, water-based solutions made from tobacco had been used to kill insects.

Tobacco’s herbicide potency is due to its nicotine content. Among the three types of tobacco plants grown in the country, Virginia tobacco has the lowest nicotine content. Burley tobacco comes higher in terms of nicotine content followed by the native tobacco which has the highest.

The DA confirms that nicotine in tobacco deters garden pests and is very potent against creatures such as slugs and aphids. Tobacco tea, made from tobacco leaves and stalks, is used by gardeners to kill garden pests. Tobacco tea, used as spray against insects, is processed from boiling dried tobacco materials.

The DA however cautions the use of tobacco on tomatoes (Lycopersiconesculentum), potatoes (Solanumtuberosum) and peppers (Capsicum spp.) as this may transmit the tobacco mosaic virus and cause more problems for these plants. But all beneficial use considered, tobacco insecticide is still an environment-friendly and cost efficient alternative to synthetic pesticide.

Tobacco pond sterilizer

Almost a decade of research done by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Philippine Council for Aquaculture and Marine Resources Research and Development (PCAMRRD) and the NTA have proven the effectiveness of tobacco for sterilization of fishponds.

Field tests conducted in Pampanga, Bulacan, Pangasinan and Ilocos Sur all showed positive results. Today tobacco dusts is popularly used by pond owners in Pangasinan and La Union.

The application is simple, when the ponds are cleared of water, tobacco dust is applied to kill predators that would harm the stocked fingerlings. Eliminating the predators would ensure the healthy growth of the stocks as well as the availability of the natural food in the pond. In the past, farmers actually use dried and sometimes crushed tobacco leaves and spread these on the pond bottom. The availability of TDP helps greatly in the making the process efficient.

Tobacco dust is preferred by pond owners as it reduces the organic waste from tobacco and does not leave any chemical residue on the pond. Tobacco dust has also been found to promote the proliferation of lablab (plankton) that serve as natural food source for fish stocks.

However, after being introduced in in 2012, tobacco dust is still yet to be introduced extensively for commercial use especially outside the tobacco producing regions especially in Central Luzon, a major center of the aqua-culture industry.

Central Luzon’s was ranked fifth in terms of fish production in 2015 accounting for 39.2 percent (or some P31-billion worth) of the country’s production. While only placing fifth, Central Luzon had the highest value of harvest with 41.3 percent for its aqua-culture harvest for 2015.

Of the Central Luzon provinces, Pampanga, where tobacco dust was first tested, is known not only in the region but in the whole country as the Tilapia Capital of the Philippines. Using tobacco dust for pond preparation would mean a decrease in the use of chemicals for pond sterilization which means more savings for fish pond owners.

Tobacco molluscicide

Tobacco juice, tobacco dust juice and tobacco lime are not only for traditional organic insecticide used in domestic gardening but also for mainstream commercial agriculture.

Tobacco has been proven effective against a variety of snails like the brackish water pond snails (Cerithideacingulata Gmelin) which are usually pests in brackish water ponds and golden apple snails (Pomaceacanaliculata) that pester rice farms in the country.

Studies conducted by a team from the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (Seafdec) in Tigbauan, Iloilo under Dr. Joebert D. Toledo had proven tobacco dust to be effective against predatory snails and other creatures that exist in ponds and fish pens.

Parasitic trematodes, that are harmful against young fish stocks, require an intermediate host like snails to thrive. And since tobacco dust is toxic to pond snails, parasites that harm fish stocks are effectively controlled.

Tobacco also has positive uses in rice cultivation. A research of James, et al. from PhilRice-Batac demonstrated the use of tobacco scrap before and after transplanting to control harmful snail populations in rice fields. The field test was done in seven municipalities of Ilocos Norte.

The research revealed that weekly use of tobacco scraps significantly reduced the population of golden kuhol from 60 to 90 percent.

"The affected area was minimized by 80 percent and damaged hills by 84 percent. Where farmers' practice and no treatment were employed, an average 23.39 percent and 4 percent reduction in population were observed, respectively," the research said.

Rice plants treated with tobacco scraps had better crop stand, greener leaves, and taller plants, the study added. The study also showed that fields treated with tobacco scraps produced the highest yield per hectare (7.37 t/ha) compared to farmers' practice (6.38 t/ha) and no control (6.19 t/ha).

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) also recommends the use of tobacco leaves, heartleaf pickerelweed, and citrus leaves in strips across the fields as these plants are toxic to snails. If uncontrolled, the IRRI said that snails can destroy 1 m2 of field overnight. This damage could lead to more than 50 percent yield loss.

Impacts on agriculture

While government had been actively promoting the use of tobacco dust, the issue of adequate promotion and availability of tobacco material are the main reasons why tobacco is still not actively used for agricultural application.

Tobacco can virtually offset the need for synthetic chemical pesticide. The Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) said that pesticide on farmlands usually cost farmers some P1,827 per hectare each cropping season.

The use of tobacco for aqua-culture both helps tobacco farmers increase their yield and fishermen increase their catch. The study conducted by th Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center showed that fish mortality decreased from 20 percent to 5 percent, saving fish farmers of at least P20,000 on production cost per hectare each grow-out cycle when tobacco was used to control pond pests and parasites. And since tobacco is organic, it breaks down completely and leaves no residue on fish unlike chemical pesticide.

All these mean that tobacco could be used as a cheaper alternative to various agricultural applications and that no part of the tobacco plant would go to waste.

The use of tobacco for agricultural applications may increase the benefits for tobacco growing areas, and may serve as source of additional income and provides a safety net for farmers who continuously suffer from government’s anti-smoking campaign.