University of the Philippines Los Baños

(Screengrab from Bandila News Program, ABS-CBN)

 

“Creativity is to see what everybody else has seen but to think what nobody else has thought.” -Albert Einstein

This favorite quote of Dr. Ramon C. Barba, newly conferred National Scientist of the Philippines, describes his lifework.

His colleagues in the scientific community attest to “his ability to perceive simple solutions to complex problems and to produce results with minimum expenditure and gadgetry.”

Take the case of his major research – the discovery of mango flower induction by potassium nitrate (KNO3). This discovery, according to mango expert Nestor Bondad, “is considered internationally as the most significant breakthrough in mango research” and “a milestone in the study of tropical tree physiology”. Hence, Dr. Barba is known as the “Mango Hero.”

The mango technology is important because the few research breakthroughs in the past 50 years with far-reaching implications in agriculture concentrated on breeding new plant varieties of major cereals.

Dr. Barba’s discovery of KN03 was on the neglected area of systematic plant growth control, that is, to alter plant behavior in order that they can be more productive under existing farming technology.

From a PhP500 research budget in the 1970s, Dr. Barba’s solution to mango’s seasonal, biennial and erratic fruit-bearing habits provided the main stimulus for the development of the now multi-billion peso mango industry in the Philippines and in tropical countries.

The KNO3 Technology: Small Budget, Big Returns

The technology that Dr. Barba presented in 1974 gave growers a new, simple, and effective method to force mango to flower anytime of the year by a single drenching spray of 1% KN03 solution.

Before the 1970s, researchers in India, the United States, Philippines, and Australia have unsuccessfully searched for chemicals to force flowering of mango.

Dr. Barba conducted his mango flowering research on his own during Sundays in a friend’s orchard - the Quimara Farm of couple Jose and Rita Quimson - in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.

With a personal budget of just PhP500, he bought a hand sprayer (PhP27 from Mapecon) and KNO3 worth PhP5 from Mercury Drug sold for making ham during Christmas time. He got other chemicals for free from chemical and agricultural firms.

He unraveled the positive response of mango to chemical flower induction and the inductive property of KNO3 and thiourea in two weeks (second Sunday after spraying) when shoots hand-sprayed with these chemicals, among several others tested, produced vigorous flowers.

The whole technology of flower induction with KNO3 that he developed and the owner’s adoption were completed in 4.5 months (18 weeks).

An immediate follow-up drenching spray of whole trees in a hectare plantation using 100 ten-year old trees that never flowered before vigorous flowers. These bore abundant fruits harvested four months after spraying.

KNO3 spray forces profuse flowering in 14 days and fruits would develop and mature in four months from spraying. Hence, the technology makes it possible for mango trees to bear fruits every year, breaking their biennial bearing habits. This chemical also forces the trees to flower every month of the year, thus a farmer can grow mangoes year round.

Further, flower forcing is more economical than smudging, which has been practiced since the 19th century on the Carabao mango, the single commercial variety in the Philippines.

To complement flower induction, Dr. Barba developed a growth regulator formulation, FLUSH, in 1980. In conjunction with KNO3, FLUSH can advance the first flowering of mango.

Impact of Mango Flowering Technology in the World

Spraying KNO3 became a standard practice nationwide within two years, related Dr. Roger Cuyno in 1986. It became gradually adopted in other tropical countries, and the technology has not been replaced nor modified after over 30 years, proving its usefulness and sustainability.

Dr. Panfilo Tabora, professor at the Earth University in Costa Rica, attests: “Dr. Barba’s work has had a huge impact in transforming mango production from nine Latin America countries (Mexico, Guatamela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Colombia) into an export industry.

Dr. Barba visited the continent every year between 1985 to 1990. Some 145, 000 hectartes planted to mangoes for export have been developed in seven countries in Latin America with a world trade share of 70%. The industry was expected to surpass a $1 billion export value, and mango had become a major tropical and sub-tropical fruit commodity.

Kenya and some growers in Australia have commercially accepted the use of KNO3, according to reports of the World Agro Forestry Center in 2000.

Dr. Barba also visited South America, Cuba, Malaysia, Thailand , Hawaii, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia. Utah, Peru, Florida to share his mango flowering technology.

The Making of the National Scientist

Dr. Barba was born in San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte on 31 August 1939. He studied at the University of the Philippines High School and obtained a BSA degree (major in Agronomy) at UPLB (1958). He finished MS in Horticulture from the University of Georgia (1962) and his PhD in Plant Physiology, specializing in tropical fruits and tissue culture (1967), at the University of Hawaii.

At the University of Georgia, he was already experimenting on the use of gibberellic acid along with potassium nitrate to make plants flower.

Dr. Barba came back to UPLB in 1968 and was appointed as Assistant Professor in 1969. He became the first program leader of the Plant Cell and Tissue Culture Laboratory of the Institute of Plant Breeding of the College of Agriculture from 1975 to 1980 (without compensation). At 73 years old, he continues to serve IPB as senior consultant.

He and his formidable team made milestone technologies including the development of micropropagation tools for more than 40 important species of ornamental, fruit, vegetables (white potato), plantation crops (e.g., cassava, banana, sugarcane), aquarium plants, and forest trees (e.g., rattan, bamboo, ramie, derris).

But mango continues to be close to his heart. In 2011, he and Ms. Lillian Pateña successfully transferred cultures from tissue culture for Carabao mango to the soil after 10 years of research. Litz, a foremost US expert on tissue culture of trees, considers transfer to soil as his bottleneck, and he has not reported success to date since he started tissue culture of mango in 1982.

Recognition: The Mango Hero

For the mango flowering technology he developed, Dr. Barba was awarded patents in the Philippines, the United States of America, England, New Zealand, and Australia. However, he never enforced these so that farmers could use the technology freely. He also did not receive any royalty.

In 2008, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) recognized his ‘creativity and innovation’ through a documentary film. He is the only one chosen in the Philippines as an inventor, and the Philippines is one of only two countries chosen in the Asia-Pacific Region.

In the Philippines, he received several research awards including the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) of the Philippines for Agriculture; (1974), IBM/DOST Science and Technology Award (1989), and the UPAA Lifetime Distinguished Award (2004). In 2004, he was elected as Academician to the National Academy of Science and Technology-Philippines. In June 2016, he was conferred the rank and title of National Scientist by virtue of Malacañan Proclamation No. 783 signed by the Philippine president.

If true scientific discovery requires keen intellectual capacity to analyze, to innovate, to perceive, and to recognize a problem of major importance, and to be able to conduct experiments to find solutions without elaborate instrumentation but simple tools, then Dr. Barba, the ‘Mango Hero’, is the ‘master genius.’


 

(Note: The article was based on the original nomination papers of Dr. Barba for various awards, which were written by the authors through the years. Inputs from colleagues in the scientific and academic communities are also acknowledged).