(STAR) By Rocel C. Felix - Agricultural scientists of the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA) are rushing to come up with a genetically-engineered abaca fiber in hopes of saving an ailing industry that is reeling from debilitating diseases.

FIDA experts said creating a genetically modified abaca is the only solution to diseases affecting the endemic crop. For decades, agricultural scientists have been unable to find viable solutions to eradicate three major diseases that perennially plague abaca farms: abaca mosaic, abaca bunchy-top virus and abaca bract mosaic.

"The rapid infection of abaca plantations has become alarming and it is only through modern biotechnology that we hope to come up with a disease-free breed for planting that can resist ABTV. This is needed to maintain high production and keep our share in the world market," said Cecille Gloria Soriano.

While abaca remains as a major dollar earner, with the Philippines accounting for 85 percent of the world supply, the massive infection in at least three abaca-producing regions is threatening the country’s export revenues. "We in FIDA believe that the only permanent method to control the disease is by developing GMA (genetically-modified abaca)," said Josephine Regalado, chief of the FIDA crop research division.

She explained that a bio-engineered abaca is a coat-protein mediated which can resist the multiplication of the virus in its system even when bitten by a virus-infected aphid, a major carrier of the virus, particularly the abaca bunchy-top virus. Regalado said FIDA is now experimenting on GMA’s resistance to the ABTV at the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in the University of the Philippines in Diliman and in Los Banos, respectively.

She said GMA is crucial in saving the abaca industry since the conventional methods have limitations.

Through biotechnology it will be easier to determine and detect diseases, thus preventing them from infecting and spreading into the open fields, added Regalado. FIDA said that with a disease-resistant abaca fiber, the Philippines would be able to take advantage of the increasing demand for abaca and its products.

The US, United Kingdom, Japan, France, and South Korea are the major markets for abaca fiber.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization attributed the current strong demand for abaca in the world market to the expanding market for specialty papers for food packaging as in tea bags and meat casings, filter papers, non-wovens and disposables. Another is the surge in demand for handmade paper as art media, photo frames, albums, stationery, flowers, all purpose cards and decoratives.

Another reason is the development of new uses for abaca such as textile materials or as blending material, with silk, piña or polyester, in the production of high-end fabrics.

Abaca is obtained from a banana-like plant, known in the science world as "Musa textiles." It is indigenous to the Philippines but is also found in Borneo, Indonesia and Central America.

Abaca is grown in most parts of the country, but the major producing provinces are Catanduanes, Leyte, Southern Leyte, Davao Oriental, Northern Samar, Sorsogon, Sulu, Davao del Sur, and Surigao del Sur. The fibers from Leyte and Southern Leyte are recognized as having the best quality.

But while the outlook for abaca appears promising, the industry is being saddled with production, processing, and marketing problems which the government and industry are now trying to address to sustain its growth and make it globally competitive,

Exports of raw abaca fibers and abaca fibers generate average annual earnings of $76 million with an estimated 1.5 million Filipinos dependent on abaca for their livelihood.

FIDA which is tasked to distribute disease-free planting materials is currently using biotech techniques in disease "indexing" to detect and determine diseases that affect planting materials.

"We have to fiercely attack the disease, or else we will lose all our abaca," said Regalado.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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