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Improving soil health: Key to improving vegetable yield

One essential component in successful vegetable production is soil health. 

Soil health, as defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pertains to the capacity of the soil to “function as a living system, with ecosystem and land use boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health.” 

As such, healthy soil provides a healthy base for sustainable production and is one of the essential factors in boosting productivity, especially in vegetable farms. 

In a study conducted by Dr.  Ajay Nair, from Iowa State University’s Department of Agriculture, three main components of soil health are its chemical, physical and biological indicators. 

The chemical indicators refer to nutrient concentration, nutrient cycling, water relations,  and cation exchange capacity. The physical indicators pertain to the soil structure and texture, soil aggregate stability, and water components. Meanwhile, the biological indicators include soil microbes, microbial biomass, and biodiversity. 

“Taking a balanced approach where emphasis is given on increasing or maintaining organic matter, improving soil structure and drainage, sequestering carbon, suppressing soil erosion, and practicing crop rotation, will significantly improve soil quality and health,” Nair said. 

Among the key areas that need to be focused on are soil organic matter. This affects all three indicators of soil health and affects the nutrient retention and cycling as well as the water retention of the soil. 

Composting affects the balance of organic matter and provides a steady source of nutrients and essential microbial populations in vegetable farms. They improve soil health leading to increased yields. Cover cropping also adds soil organic matter and enhance soil structure and fertility, water holding capacity and stabilize the soil to prevent erosion. They are also effective deterrents to weeds. 

Another technique to improve soil health is introducing crop rotations to the farm plan since diverse crops for different seasons improve the soil’s physical properties, decrease erosion, reduce nitrogen, making for a more competitive crop yield. 

Fertilization introduces an opportunity for vegetable farms to meet the optimal crop nutrient demands while maintaining the best soil pH level. 

Meanwhile, tillage is one of the major practices that reduce organic matter level in the soil. Each time soil is tilled, it is aerated. This stimulates growth and activity of aerobic microorganisms which feed on organic matter. This leads to faster decomposition of organic matter, resulting in the formation of less stable humus and an increased liberation of CO2, and thus a reduction in organic matter.

In his study, Nair highlighted the importance of soil drainage, since waterlogged conditions can significantly reduce the microbial population and diversity in soil which has an impact on nutrient cycling. In the same vein, soil compaction also plays an important role in soil health.

Urban agriculture: An emerging trend during the pandemic

The Department of Agriculture has been strongly pushing urban gardening, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Urban gardening, or urban agriculture, is defined as the “growing, processing and distribution of food crops and animal products, by and for the local community, within an urban environment.”

Urban gardening serves a three pronged purpose. First, it helps with food security as households are encouraged to grow their own backyards or community gardens. Second, it helps the environment as plants provide clean air to be enjoyed by all. Finally, with the challenge of mental health looming amid the challenges of the pandemic, this activity is considered as a productive and enriching pastime which boosts self confidence and provides a welcome distraction from the challenges of work, work and other routine demands.

Fruit and vegetable farming is continuing to become popular among urban dwellers. Starting to easy to grow veggies such as pechay, city residents who succeed in growing this vegetable in 30 to 40 days develop confidence to grow other leafy greens like lettuce. Pretty soon, they are introduced to bean growing and zucchini as well, which is known as a summer crop.

Even the academe has partnered with the government’s Plant Plant Plant program by incorporating this sustainable practice into the curriculum, encouraging students to plant in their homes and grow their own healthy food.

The government’s centerpiece program, which seeks to respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been adopted by other government agencies who have pledged to help increase national agri-fishery output through intensified use of quality seeds, appropriate inputs, modern technologies to increase levels of productivity across all commodities, and thus ensure food productivity, availability, accessibility and affordability. 

“As a long time partner of the government, we are happy that these thrusts geared towards food security is reaching even Filipinos in urban areas. We are very much looking forward to sharing our knowledge and resources about trends and technologies to further boost this initiative as we continue to battle the threat that is COVD-19, “ Croplife Philippines Executive Director Edilberto de Luna said. 

Best veggies for startup backyard gardens 

With many Filipinos becoming interested in growing their own food amid the challenges of the pandemic, the Department of Agriculture, through its Agricultural Training Institute came up with a guide for growing vegetables for urban farmers. 

Among the list of vegetables that have a high success rate in the urban setting are zucchini, lettuce, pechay and beans, according to the agency. 

In it’s publication A Guide to Urban/Home Gardening, the AIT laid out the most important tips to becoming a successful vegetable gardener.


Zucchinis are known to be quite versatile. They can be grown in sandy and dense like soil but they can also adapt well to container and vegetable gardens.
  • Choose a sunny location. Zucchini needs 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily
  • When planting, make sure the soil is well tilled down to a depth of 8 inches. Createvsmall hills or mounds a foot across approximately 4 inches high. Space the mounds 24 inches apart for bush varieties.
  • For container gardens, use containers that are at least 18 inches across and 12 inches deep . Make sure that there are holes in the bottom of the containers for adequate drainage. Plant 2-3 seeds per container and thin 1-2 plants when the seedlings emerge.
  • Zucchini benefit from consistent watering. Instead of watering the tops of the plants, focus a slow stream of water at the base to prevent diseases from developing. Make sure the water does not erode the soil. 


These vegetables thrive in temperatures ranging from 18°C to 22 °C. There are three common varieties that thrive in the Philippines including loose leaf, romaine and crisp head.
  • Start growing lettuce using seedling trays.
  • For home gardens with wider areas you can mix one (1) kg of compost for every square meter of soil. Seeds should be sown ¼ inch deep and thinned when plants have 3 to 4 true leaves. Soaking the seeds in water for four (4) hours before sowing enhances germination.
  • Water at least once a day. Optimally, watering should be done in the morning. 
  • Nitrogenous fertilizers such as fermented plant juice should be applied once a week Meanwhile, compost should be applied before planting and three weeks before transplanting. 
  • Lettuce seedlings can be transplanted after 10 to 14 days. Water the seedlings before removing these from the seedling tray to lessen root damage and transplanting shock.
  • The best time to apply fertilizers is when seedlings emerge and when blossoms appear. It is advisable to use balanced, water soluble fertilizer. Check with manufacturer’s instruction for best results. 
  • Harvesting can be done after 45 to 60 days depending on the variety. Crisp heads can be harvested once the heads are firm while loose-leaf varieties should be harvested


Pechay  is one of the vegetables that rose to popularity among backyard farmers because it can be harvested in as little as 30 to 40 days. Like lettuce, its thrives in temperatures ranging from 18 to 22°C
  • Pechay can either be sown directly or transplanted. For those that are grown in seedling trays, plants can be transplanted to 1.5 L plastic bottles as a growing pot 10 days after sowing. Make sure to limit each container to two seedlings. 
  • Use well pulverized soil with one part compost and one part rice hull. For direct planting, use soil mixed with 1 kilogram of compost and 300 grams of rice hull for every one sqm of soil. 
  • If seedlings are transplanted in plots, transplant 10 days after sowing at a distance of 10 cm between plants and 20 cm between rows. Water regularly and apply organic probiotics like vermin-tea or Fermented Plant Juice to promote better growth.
  • Water plants 2 to 3 times a week. 
  • Remove seeds regularly
  • Harvest in as early as three weeks. Harvesting should be done in the afternoon to minimize postharvest losses.

UAV applications on vegetable farms in Asia show promise 

After the Asian region was identified as an emerging hotspot of drone technology in agriculture and the positive reception that countries have been showing for the benefits of this practice, Japan and China have already started expanding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to vegetable farms. 

A report published in the UN-FAO’s journal E-agriculture in Action: Drones for Agriculture showed that Japan, which has been actively exploring the use of UAVs for agriculture systems since 1983, has continued to develop technical advancements to bring the benefits of drones to a larger scope of the agricultural sector. 

The report, submitted by Yamaha Motors, one of the leading proponents of early model drones in the country, indicated that they have partnered with research institutes to expand the range of uses for their helicopters. 

“They are now being used for the direct sowing of rice paddies and pest control in vegetables, wheat/ barley and soy bean agriculture. More recently, they have been used overseas for similar purposes in countries such as the Republic of Korea and Australia,” the company reported. 

In China, where the use of drones for agriculture is fully supported by the government, drones are being used for surveillance in agriculture to communicate with wireless sensor networks in large areas to get real time data for processing and analysis. 

“Low cost, real time, large scale and stable surveillance, accurate data acquisition and transmission as well as processing are very crucial for agriculture production and disaster prevention. However, in most rural areas the absence of wireless base stations and Wi-Fi stations is a major obstacle in implementing surveillance systems. That means the data acquired through the Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) cannot be transmitted using wireless communications. An alternative solution is to employ UAV to communicate with the WSN,” the report stated. 

During the first application in a 12,000 acre area with about 500 acres of vegetable and pepper, the area was equipped with WSN and UAV. This farm was located in Xintai, Shandong Province. The scheme was sponsored by the D-Tech (Xintai) Technology Co., Ltd., Shandong Province. 

“If this UAV-WSN based surveillance system is applied widely in the near future, millions of farmers will be able to benefit from the acquisition of real time farm information. Farmers will not need to spend a significant amount of time on acquiring farm data and will have access to disaster warning and weather information when a disaster event seems possible. Nevertheless, the UAV-WSN technology is still not mature enough for large-scale application. More UAV-WSN research and development work is required, including the development of applications for fishing, poultry and farming enterprises,” the report concluded. 

The Tomorrow of Agriculture

Leopoldo C. Valdez, C.B. Andrew Asia Inc.

People have depended on agriculture for years as the primary source of  food. Agriculture has always been what drives the world, but with the increase in technology, it has caused undeniable changes to occur in the industry. We have developed all kinds of ways to manipulate nature so that we can produce higher yield crops, more nutritious crops, bigger crops, crops that withstand cold, and farming equipment that allows us to produce these crops with relative ease.

Why then are there still billions of people who are malnourished? Why are there still thousands of children dying each day from hunger? It seems as though world hunger is more a result of unequal distribution of food rather than lack of quantity.

Sadly, agriculture has turned into a high profit business, and many biotech and agricultural input companies are constantly trying to come up with better, more efficient, and safer way of doing things. The influx of modern machinery and farm input application equipment, social media, release of novel crop protection active ingredients and formulations, or the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO) are just a few of the many elements of technology that have impacted agriculture. 

In the Philippines, agriculture has been the backbone of society and the economy, and through the years, production has rapidly increased.

Though the agriculture industry used to be basic and traditional, not only in the Philippines but also in many other countries worldwide, it has shifted into a more complex industry. The green revolution in the Philippines was initiated as technology mission to increase agricultural productivity during the late 1970s. It transformed the country from a net importer to a net exporter of rice, albeit on a small scale.  The food grain production has no doubt increased to a comfortable level, but there sprouted limitations to some segment components in the agriculture industry such as seed and fertilizer technology, low and variable yields, or crop imbalances. In general, technology has undoubtedly played a big role in the growth and development of the agriculture industry to date. 

In the early 1700s a series of discoveries and inventions gave rise to the Agricultural Revolution. This revolution was brought about mainly by three kinds of fundamental twists.

1. Improved crop growing methods and models - Charles Townshend, an English politician who went into agriculture following retirement, started to experiment with crop rotation and found out that turnips could be used as a fourth crop in a four-crop rotation farming system. His four-crop rotation consisted of turnips, two grains, and legumes. Each one would either add or absorb necessary nutrients in order to constantly be able to use the soil. 

2. Advances in livestock breeding - Farmers started to figure out that certain animals could be bred together to have offspring with desired traits. Now, they could have a sheep that is both good for wool and for meat, or a cattle breed that is equally good for meat or milk. 

3. The invention of new farm equipment – Over time, more equipment were developed which made farming much more efficient and easy as compared to earlier years of manual and traditional methods. This included seed drills, cotton gin, harvesting machines, and steel plows.

The next big thing that happened in agriculture was in the mid 1800s when Gregor Johann Mendel – a meteorologist, mathematician, biologist, and Agustinian friar and abbot of St. Thomas’ abbey - discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance which made it possible to breed plants and animals scientifically. This gave rise to hybrid corn that produced much higher yields. More recently in the 1960's scientists introduced new varieties of wheat, corn, and rice that gave extremely high yields. They made these high yield crops in an effort to help poor nations cope up with hunger and malnutrition.

Agriculture technologies have rapidly advanced in the second half of the twentieth century. These developments have forever changed the way farmers work and do their trade. The coming into place and flare of the internet is no less remarkable. The internet has transformed us in the way we live, work, or even eat. That’s the way historians might say that it all changed. The digital revolution has transported analog system into a cutting edge advantage. Consumers and producers have been connected like never before with the immense potential to change every aspect of our lives for the better. 

Just very recently, a weed killer robot called Dick was developed in the USA using an artificial intelligence engine to eliminate the weeds in an arable farm lot identified using pattern recognition. The makers said that it is part of a fourth agricultural revolution to bring automation into farming to produce more while “harming the environment less.” The technology focuses on accuracy, efficiency, and sustainability. For safety, the robots possess laser sensors to detect obstructions and shut down into a hibernation mode if they encounter something expected. It was thought that this would never actually happen. But it did! 

Ben Scott-Robinson, the CEO of the company that makes these robots said “The way farming needs to be done is changing. It isn’t just about producing large quantities of food, it’s also about caring for what happens in the field.”. This is as big a change as tractors were to horses or carabaos. Yet how farmers will take up such kind of technology remains an open question. Many farmers might prefer technologies that works for them. We have no choice but to advance to the future. Nonetheless, as with all change, many benefits have supported the agriculture industry yet there are also downfalls that might hurt some segments of the agriculture business industry one way or the other. 

While agricultural productivity is of vital concern, we must also look at environmental protection which is also of equal importance. Man’s search for a better way to advance food production while saving the world he lives in now becomes a paramount concern that every country focuses on in these modern times. 

As a factor in farm and rural development, the infusion of two disparate technologies, i.e. agricultural biotechnology and information technology, is expected to catalyze program changes. These two technologies help to create new tools to attack the problem of rural poverty, generate employment for farm productivity and improved production and quality, and explore marketing potentials and income generating opportunities in the future.

Demystifying gene editing, a new tool for genetic improvement of crops

Antonio Alfonso. Ph.D.
Regulatory and Stewardship Manager
Corteva Agriscience Philippines

There is a recent addition to the plant breeders’ toolbox – it is called gene editing. Also referred to as genome editing, gene editing is a set of tools under a broad umbrella of plant breeding innovations (PBIs) or new breeding techniques (NBTs).

For a long time, breeders collected, selected and intercrossed plants around them. By doing so, they combined beneficial characteristics into new, improved varieties. Previously constrained to rely on naturally existing genetic variation or induce it by irradiation or chemical mutagens, modern plant breeders can now apply targeted and much more efficient suite of techniques to generate, select and utilize new and useful traits.

How gene editing is done?

Gene editing allows specific, targeted changes in the DNA sequence of the gene of interest to produce desirable characteristic in a relatively short period of time. It works like scissors that precisely cuts the DNA in a specific location and then removes, adds or replaces DNA sequences where the cut was made.

Four gene editing techniques have been demonstrated successfully: meganucleases, zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALEN) and clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR-associated endonuclease (CRISPR/Cas). They may differ in terms of specificity, efficiency, cost, flexibility and ease of use. Among them, CRISPR/Cas system stands out due to its relative simplicity, efficiency, and precision. It is considered an innovative technological breakthrough so that the two scientists who developed them won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2020.

Gene editing relies on having prior knowledge about the DNA sequence of a particular target gene. In the example of CRISPR/Cas, a short guide RNA molecule is designed that will specifically bind to the place of the targeted DNA break. Sequence information is no longer a limiting step since genome sequencing has become common to the point where whole genome sequences of many plants, animals and microorganisms already exist or can be generated at a relatively low cost. The guide RNA works in tandem with Cas, which is a DNA-cutting enzyme (endonuclease), and directs it to the targeted location to make a double strand break.

The cell’s existing DNA repair mechanism recognizes the DNA ends cut by the DNA-cutting enzyme and reconnects them. Depending on the mechanism of DNA repair, which is selected, such repair may result in nucleotide insertions, deletions or edits compared to the original sequence. This, in turn, result in an intended change in plant characteristic, such as, for example, becoming resistant to a fungus to which the plant was originally susceptible. The next step is to validate the new characteristic through screenhouse or field evaluation.

Gene edited products – same tools, several different outcomes

The successful demonstration of gene editing techniques spurred a flurry of research in many public and private institutions in many countries on key crops. Target characteristics for improvement are typically the same as with conventional breeding - increased yield, resistance to various diseases, herbicide tolerance, drought tolerance, delayed ripening, plant stature, improved nutritional characteristics (e.g., high oleic content of oilseed crops) and other features preferred by farmers and/or consumers.

A notable gene-edited product which is already on the U.S. market today is high-oleic soybean.

Gene editing tools can be used to produce several different outcomes. The first category is introducing deletion or edit mutations similar to what could be found in nature or achieved using traditional induced mutagenesis, albeit in an efficient, targeted manner. Introduced in the early 1940s, induction of genetic changes through mutagenesis is achieved using mutagenic chemicals or ionizing radiation, which produces multiple non-specific mutations and resource-consuming selection is required to identify a plant with mutation of interest. Many useful mutant crops developed through traditional mutagenesis have been widely planted and become instrumental in increasing crop productivity and nutritional value.

The other category includes targeted insertion of a sequence of interest, which may come from the same species, a close relative or another species. For example, adding a copy of the gene already existing in the target variety, or existing in some but not all varieties of the same crop, resulting in increased drought tolerance. Genome sequencing of different varieties of the same crop has revealed that gene copy number variation and presence-absence variation are very common biological phenomena. Thus, in this instance gene editing is representative what already occurs in nature. If gene editing tools are used to insert a sequence from a different, sexually incompatible species (for example, a bacterial gene conferring insect resistance), this essentially results in producing a transgenic crop, similar to those that have now been in the market for more than two decades. Doing it through targeted gene editing approach offers advantages such as pre-selected integration site, allowing co-location of the transgene with genes for other traits of interest and avoiding disruption of endogenous genes which could not be controlled with random integration process.

Government regulation, product safety and product availability

After being developed, product commercialization and utilization are the logical next steps. Here, government regulation comes into play according to the country’s policy and guidelines. Biotechnology regulations have been put in place with the goal to protect human health and the environment. Gene editing is based on using modern biotechnology tools, however many applications of gene editing result in crops that do not contain transgenic DNA and could be found in nature or developed through traditional breeding. Should such products be yet regulated by biotechnology regulations as GMOs because of the process used - or they should be regulated similarly to traditionally bred varieties, i.e., based on the actual outcome? Are there any new safety considerations for those gene edited crops without foreign DNA compared to traditionally bred varieties that would warrant a differential regulatory oversight? It is imperative that regulations are consistent, predictable, science-based, risk-commensurate and globally harmonized; these would stimulate technology application for commercial product development facilitate trade among nations. There is a clear opportunity to have regulation that will serve its protection goal while not stifling innovation. It has been shown that clear and practical regulation shortens the route to market and encourages more innovation. Over-regulation and ambiguities often cause unnecessary costs and delays.

Many countries with biotechnology regulations in place, such as the Philippines, have already developed or are developing national policies for gene-edited crops. A key consideration is if the product is similar to a plant that could be developed through traditional breeding methods such as induced mutagenesis. Gene-edited products containing foreign (transgenic) DNA will be under GMO evaluation following the existing guidelines while those without foreign DNA will be either out of scope of the regulatory oversight (in some countries) or might undergo simplified or full evaluation as GMOs (in other countries).

The next wave of agricultural innovation has just started, thanks to the advent of gene editing technologies. With its inherent power and distinct advantages, gene editing promises to create revolutionary impact in agriculture and other fields. Further improvements happen as new discoveries and information become available, giving scientists more tools and enhanced capabilities to develop modern crop varieties necessary to produce more food for the world’s growing population amidst unfavorable conditions, destructive pests and other production constraints.

Faming During Pandemic: Jordan Baoedang, Buguias, Benguet

More than a year into the pandemic, the agriculture sector is still trying to recover from the losses it sustained during the months of lockdown due to movement and business restrictions.

In Benguet, vegetable farmers suffered losses  worth millions, but it did not stop them from planting lettuce, cabbage, carrots, and other produce because they believed that what they were doing helped people especially during these trying times. 

Jordan Baoedang, a dedicated young vegetable farmer from Buguias, Benguet shared this sentiment: “Nalugi kami ngayong pandemic pero hindi ito yung panahon para huminto dahil kailangan ng tao na maging malakas at malusog at isa iyon sa pwede naming maitulong. (We suffered losses during this pandemic but this is not the time to give up. People need to stay healthy and strong at this time and this is our way to contribute.)”

He recalled that the first months of the pandemic were a struggle but soon, with assistance from the government,  particularly the Department of Agriculture, farmers like him were able to slowly recover their losses and adjust to the new normal.

“May kakulangan pa rin siyempre lalo na sa pagbiyahe at pagbenta ng produkto pero dahil sa pagbubukas ng mga bagong lugar na pwedeng pagbagsakan ng mga gulay, unti-utning nakakabawi kahit papaano (There are still challenges in transporting our goods but with the opening of more markets where we can unload our harvests, we are able to make ends meet somewhat)”, he added. 

Jordan also emphasized the importance of sticking to the proper and safe way of planting, spraying, and harvesting of vegetables.

“Nung lockdown, nagdagdag talaga ako ng oras at pagod sa pagtatanim dahil kailangan na maayos pa rin at ligtas ang gulay kapag kinain habang nag-iingat ako na hindi magkaroon ng COVID (During the lockdown, I made sure to allot more time in planting. I exercised the proper protocols to keep my vegetables safe for consumption and I also wanted to stay safe from COVID).” 

With the pandemic being far from over, Jordan and other vegetable farmers in Benguet hope that they will be able to contribute to the country through food security, even as they strive to provide for their families with adequate income. 

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