Prepping Philippine farm produce for the world

In Photo: STK CEO Guy Elitzur: “We are trying to offer products that are high-performance and science-backed that would be able to face any performance of chemical products.”

IF the Philippines wants to ensure that its farm produce is robust and meets the pesticide residue limits set by its trading partners, then it should consider using biopesticides. So says the man at the helm of Israel-based bio-agri technology firm STK.

According to STK CEO Guy Elitzur, biological solutions would solve not only the efficacy issues of crops, but would also leave produce with much lower chemical content.

“We are in an age where farmers are being concerned [with] other parameters not only in terms of efficacy. [For example] they are now pressed by food companies and supermarkets in the US and in Europe, as well as countries exporting to these countries, to use less and less chemicals,” Elitzur told the BusinessMirror in an interview.

“[They are pressed] to have better MRL [maximum residue limit] performance, better quality produce, and also in terms of improving yield,” Elitzur added.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines MRL as the maximum concentration of a pesticide residue legally permitted in food commodities and animal feeds.

This means that if a certain chemical compound in pesticides used on any produce exceeds a specific MRL standard (usually measured by parts per million), then the produce will not be allowed to enter the importing country.

MRL is a sanitary and phytosanitary measure imposed by countries to ensure the safety of farm produce sold in their domestic markets.

The STK chief explained that farmers globally are facing more and more stringent MRL policies. For example, in the US and Europe, regulators are imposing a low MRL but food companies are requiring lower limits than the government’s standards, according to Elitzur.

“In my eyes there are two sets of MRL [to address]: regulatory and food chain. In Europe and the US, the regulatory bodies are pushing to lower MRL to have better quality,” he said.

“But we have seen supermarket chains setting lower [MRL] compared to regulatory [settings] to have a competition edge. So, there are two MRLs competing with one another, which push farmers to grow better and healthier produce,” he added.

Elitzur explained that biopesticides, or farm inputs that contain both biological and chemical ingredients, could resolve these problems. And these are the products that Elitzur’s company wants to sell in the Philippine market this year.

“We are making sure our solutions, called hybrid, address the needs of the food chain and not just the crop needs, such as efficacy issues. We are trying to offer products that are high-performance and science-backed that would be able to face any performance of chemical products,” he said.

“On top of that—to add sense of value—our products address the needs of the farmers in understanding the pressure of consumer preference,” he added.

November debut

STK, a subsidiary of publicly listed Chinese chemical firm Sichuan Hebang Corp. Ltd., will start selling its biofungicide “STK Regev” in the country by November through its local firm Stockton-Agrimor Philippines Inc.

Another person, in the form of the government’s chief regulator for pesticides, shares the sentiment of Elitzur on biopesticides.

“Our approach is basically reducing the effect of chemical pesticides or fungicides. A synergy between biological fungicide and chemical will hasten the reduction of our MRL to corresponding limits,” Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority Executive Director Wilfredo C. Roldan told the BusinessMirror.

“In pesticides application, you are after efficacy and safety, especially in the environment. I think the trend now should be going into biological pesticide or fungicide [to address those issues],” Roldan added.

STK Regev is the first biofungicide to be sold in the Philippine market, according to Elitzur. This is also the first hybrid solution that STK is bringing to the country.

The biofungicide would be commercially sold first for the utilization of banana growers.

STK Regev would allow banana farmers to have a better integrated pest management (IPM), as the hybrid fungicides would enable better management of chemical application to crops, according to Elitzur.

“This hybrid product contains chemical active ingredients and biological active ingredients in one formula,” he said.

“The advantages of this hybrid solution include better synergy between chemicals and biological ingredients as we chose the right molecules; more effective in terms of efficacy compared to the same chemicals; improve issue of plant resistance; and would greatly reduce the chemicals sprayed by farmers,” he added.

Elitzur is confident that the entry of STK Regev in the Philippine market would allow banana growers to drastically reduce the MRL of their produce. “For sure, for sure,” he said in affirmation.

Elitzur explained that they targeted the local banana market first as it is a top fruit produce and export of the Philippines. Furthermore, Elitzur added that banana growers and companies are becoming more cognizant of the issues surrounding MRL, food and environmental safety.

Elitzur flew to the Philippines last week and went to Davao to meet with local banana growers, especially those belonging to the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA).

“They have changed their priorities in terms of [pesticides]. Of course, cost is always the issue, but residue and environment issues are becoming more important to them than cost. And they are now looking for more products to address these issues,” he said. “Their targets are now going to environmental aspects and pesticide residues—much more than it used to be the costs.”

Members of the PBGEA are “very, very enthusiastic” on the commercial sale of STK Regev after the firm presented the results of the hybrid solution on banana production, according to STK Philippines Country Manager Arturo Alejar.

Elitzur said it costs them “tens of millions of dollars” to bring STK Regev into the Philippine market. This is also the first biofungicide in the Asian market, according to Alejar.

“The Philippines is an important market for us because of the size and the banana industry,” Elitzur said.

The biofungicide would have a “competitive” price tag, which would play around the “$31 per hectare” quotation, according to the firm.

Alejar explained that banana farmers conduct 60 to 70 cycles of pesticide spraying, which costs about $2,000 per hectare annually.

“We’re really planning to be very competitive in terms of pricing so that we can get early market share,” STK Philippines Business Development Manager Kristle Grace Aguilar-Hawod said.

“We are always thinking about this hybrid product to address the MRL issues of our export crop like bananas, but this product is also registered in rice. We are also making this product available for rice so that it could contribute at least in having a healthy and safe food for all Filipinos,” Aguilar-Hawod added.

Alejar disclosed that they will make STK Regev commercially available for rice farmers by first quarter next year and later on for mango producers.

Roldan said the country’s fungicide market is worth P4.5 billion, comprising at least 30 major companies with 10 multinational. The local pesticide market is valued at around P30 billion, according to Roldan.

“The food chain and the industry is changing,” Elitzur said.

“The stakeholders need to accelerate the adoption of new [agricultural] technology. And we are bringing to the Philippine market a new product that is very innovative and could help a lot of farmers,” Elitzur added.

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Jasper Emmanuel Y. Arcalas is a graduate of the UST Journalism School (Batch 2016). He currently covers agribusiness for the BusinessMirror. He joined the news outfit in August 2016.