GREEN MINDED: Thoughts on Philippine Agriculture Today

As the crisis worsens in third world countries like the Philippines, health care is apparently not a priority for the government. With the continuing neglect and consistent slash of budget for health among any other social services, this resulted to a ballooning and complex problems of health concerns.

Even non-communicable diseases can be a serious threat. In 2010, the International Diabetes Federation included the Philippines on its Top 15 Countries for diabetes prevalence, with 390,000 deaths related to diabetes.

Meanwhile the American Association of Endocrinology-Philippines recorded 3.4 million Filipinos with diabetes in the same year, with 7.7percent prevalence rate.

This article will not provide the “do’s and don’ts list” for diabetic people; instead, I will share an interesting crop that might help address the “sweet cravings” of the diabetic Pinoys. This is about a sweet plant—Stevia.

Stevia (Stevia rebuadiana) which belongs to the Asteraceae family is a sun-loving herb used in Paraguay and Brazil for centuries as a sweetener and as well as a medicinal crop for common ailments.

The sweetness of Stevia is dictated by a compound Stevia glycoside or stevioside, which claims to be 200-300 times sweeter in extract form and 10-15 times sweeter in the green powder form compared to other known artificial sweeteners. Certainly, Stevia has an edge with synthetic sweeteners being an all-natural sweetener.

Scientific studies supported Stevia to be a good sugar alternative. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)  pronounced the safe use of purified Stevia leaves and extracts as sweeteners for food and beverages.

Since Stevia is not a native plant in our country, it is a general rule to provide sufficient supervision in growing this crop, especially in commercial grade farms.

Stevia can be propagated through seeds and stem cuttings of about 4-6 inches in length. Seeds will be germinated on trays for about 7 to 8 weeks. Stem cuttings on the other hand should be allowed to root for 3-4weeks in pots. Transplanting of Stevia seedlings must be done in the field with a planting distance of about 2 feet (60cm), the ideal plant density  of Stevia is around 100,000 plants per hectare.

As mentioned earlier, Stevia is a sun-loving plant, thus, it is suitable in regions with longer days. Temperature requirement for Stevia ranges from 6⁰c-43⁰c and a humid environment is better.

Like any other crops, Stevia requires fertilization. It is suggested to use organic materials made from cow dung or manure and kakawate/ madre de kakaw leaves compost. Vermicast is also a good source of nutrients for the crop.

Stevia requires frequent shallow irrigation, and especially when the crops exhibit wilting. Aside from irrigated lands, Stevia also grows in acidic soils.

It is also important to control the weeds to minimize competitors of the Stevia crop, thus, manual weeding is suggested. Meanwhile, insect pests are not a serious threat for Stevia except for the cutworm. Harvesting of Stevia can be done after 4months.
In the household, Stevia can be used as sweetener through the tea method and can also be used in salads to accentuate a sweet sting on our fresh greens.

In terms of industrial demand, greater opportunities await for Stevia production. In 2011, the Department of Agriculture- Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR) implemented a program for Stevia production in the Bicol region.

By September this year, a known Cola company is set to launch a new product with a significant amount of its sweetener based on a Stevia derived compound.

As the crisis deepens, we must exhaust possible means to survive alongside with our struggle towards a sustainable agriculture. Stevia production can be one of the alternative means. But one thing is for sure, without sufficient lands to till and our farmers get meager support, these efforts will all be in vain.

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  • Rommel Alcantara

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