Copra meal is often considered a waste. But to Dr. Laura Pham, a chemist and food scientist, copra meal is a gem when it is processed and enriched with protein and mixed in animal feeds, making the livestock and fish healthy for human consumers.
The central link in this food chain is copra meal on animal feeds. Pham is the University Researcher IV in the Oils and Fats Laboratory and Feeds and Specialty Products Laboratory of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (Biotech) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños in Laguna, and in the UPLB-Animal and Dairy Science Cluster. She has been studying food for 15 years.
One of the groundbreaking products of her research is copra meal. With P8-million funding from the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development, Pham’s research project was on how to enrich the protein content of copra meal so it could enhance the nutrients when mixed with animal feeds.
Valuable for feeds
Copra is the dried coconut meat that is used in the extraction of coconut oil.
Copra is used for a variety of purposes, but the residual material in processing copra—known as copra cake and meal—is a valuable concentrated feed for livestock.
The coconuts are opened, the water drained out, and the meat is left to dry. Sun and kiln drying are some of the methods used to dry the meat, which are then crushed to extract oil that is used for many purposes, while the byproduct is harnessed in supplying fodder for livestock.
“What we do in bioprocessing is to increase the protein content and decrease the fiber content so that the copra meal becomes digestible when mixed in the diets or feed formula of livestock and fish,” she said.
She said copra meal has a high-fiber content, which is not easily digestible by animals when mixed with the feeds. It has also contamination from aflatoxin, a harmful copra chemical, and nutritional contents that are not balanced and, therefore, need processing so that protein emerges.
Protein-enriched copra meals
Pham has done research and studied the benefits of protein-enriched copra meals (PECM) to animal feeds in livestock to boost the development of the country’s poultry and swine industries.
The current addition to her study is fish, specifically freshwater tilapia, bangus (milkfish) and shrimp that are the subjects of her ongoing field trial.
She explained that the bioconversion process is done by treating copra meal with microorganisms.
The copra meal is regrinded to make it powdery, then treated through steps of sterilization, inoculation, drying and solid-state fermentation within five to seven days. Drying alone will take two days at 70 degrees Celsius temperature. This is done in batches.
The inoculation of live microorganisms in the copra meal releases enzymes and other components that break down the copra meal-fiber content and increases its protein content.
The meal has a one-year shelf life with correct storage at room temperature and colder. Otherwise, it will grow and be rendered unusable.
Pham described PECM as similar to corn meal in texture.
Boost technology for livestock, aquaculture
“I really want to boost the technology for our livestock and aquaculture industries,” she said, stressing that, if this happens, it will be a chain reaction, not just in the animal-to-human consumer line, but in the use, production and sale of products.
“We can sell cheaper products with higher protein, and we can compete with other countries. This can be used by farmers all over the Philippines, so their products will become better too.”
In terms of growing chickens, she said the payback for spending and technology is bigger.
“If the animal product is cheaper, we can have more protein, and the intake is competitive with other countries,” she said.
She added that Filipinos have low protein intake, and the use of copra meal completes the picture.
With PECM, she said, it is expected that the country can lessen its dependence on expensive imported soybean meal and fish meal just by using available materials to enhance the protein content of animal feed.
She said copra meal as a residue of the coconut-oil industry is abundant in the Philippines. It is also not difficult to improve the copra meal, and it can be an improved version of soybean meal because it is cheaper.
Besides working with big private livestock, aquaculture and agri-business companies, she said small farmers have been buying the copra meals from UPLB Biotech in small quantities, such as 1 kilogram or 2 kg.
For some small farmers and backyard fishermen, they mix the copra meal with the feed. But for some, they have their own formula.
“They won’t divulge it, which means if they come back to buy again, the product is okay for their formula,” she said.
Pham said some of the private companies ask help from the university experts who either teach the companies’ staff when they make requests or just share the process of making PECM.
“This is a simple technology that is efficient and uses low-energy, which is not expensive, so we can train people,” she said.
Better fish weight, long life
She said UPLB-Biotech has collaborated with UP Visayas for more than a year in doing trials of making cheaper fish feed. She noted that the performance of fish in weight and mortality became better. The trials also had a 100-percent substitution for soybean, which earned a better income for the university.
Prior to the bioconversion, Pham said copra meal had only 20-percent protein content. But the technology that they have developed increased the protein content to 44 percent that is almost similar to the protein in soybean meal.
She said the copra meal would also make it an easy and more practical substitute to soybean meal, which is expensive.
Soybean, unlike coconut, is not produced widely in the Philippines, which often results in erratic pricing. It is now P26 per kg, and sometimes it can go as high as P40 per kg, especially when imported. It is expensive for farmers as a component. The copra meal, on the other hand, is only P18 per kg.
In the Philippines coconut products were the country’s top agricultural export commodity in 2015, with copra meal earning of $70.42 million, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
The PSA said the Philippines remains as one of the world’s leading coconut producers and is now one of the top copra meal producers as it is a major producer of copra.
In the same year, as many as 878,000 tons of copra meal was produced as coconut oil by-product; more than 40 percent of copra meal was exported for use as animal feed.
“I want people to know about the copra-meal technology,” she said. “I want them to be able to have the cheaper and more practical alternatives of caring for their poultry or fish.”
Probiotics for chicken
What is next after the PECM?
Pham said that, as the copra-meal technology is further perfected, UPLB Biotech would look at the prospects of probiotics for chicken. The trend globally is disallowing the use of antibiotics, and countries now use probiotics in their feed and water meal.
“That’s our new project. We call it PPECM, or probiotics and protein-enriched copra meal.”