Bukbok problematique

During the month of August, the Philippine agricultural sector came face-to-face with a rice crisis. A sudden price surge led to the declaration of a state of calamity in the province of Zamboanga. Adding more insult to the injury is the importation of almost Php 6 billion worth of weevil-infested rice from Thailand and Vietnam, thus causing more delay in the supply distribution to normalize the problem.

Who is responsible for this so-called mess? Certain offices in government try to pin the blame on other units.

Defending his office against criticisms, Department of Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said in a Facebook post that the media should not “overhype” the presence of weevil or bukbok in the imported rice stocks because these species are safe for human consumption and actually beneficial as indicators of less chemical processes on the harvest.

While the statement of Secretary Piñol may be scientifically sound,  does it justify the presence of weevil in the imported rice?

In Los Baños, a municipality that hosts agricultural research institutions, there are continuing studies and trainings on the biological activities and quarantine importance of various species of bukbok. Such activities are usually led by scientists, faculty members, and researchers from the Institute of Weed Science, Entomology, and Plant Pathology (IWEP) and the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD), and the Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agriculture. 

Biological and ecological facets

In a book published by DOST-PCAARRD, Sytophilus oryzae (L.), popularly known as the grain weevil or bukbok is described by Dr. Belen Morallo-Rejesus and Dr. Romeo Rejesus as normal pests that are commonly found in humid and temperate countries.

These small beetles usually feed on cereal grains that also serve as their breeding ground. During reproduction, the mother weevils make holes in grains of rice before laying their eggs in those spaces which later on develop into larvae and adult weevils inside the rice. Temperature and moisture in storage play crucial roles in the population density of the tiny species.

According to IWEP Director Dr. Sheryl Yap, since most of the rice grains  are stored in warehouses where the temperature and moisture percentage may vary, there is a great possibility that aside from the growth of bukbok, there are also other post-harvest pathogens that can develop in the rice stocks.

Research says that these pathogens causes the caking of the rice grains that can sometimes be toxic for human consumption.

The acceptable threshold of the damage caused by the presence bukbok on every kilo of rice is only two specimens for every kilo of rice.

Edibility of bukbok rice

Entomology experts from Los Baños do not contest the edibility of the so-called bukbok rice. However, some of them feel that this should not be an excuse.

“Just like the shrimp, bukbok is also a good source of protein,” said Dr. Barbara Caoili, an insect pathologist and professor from the UPLB-IWEP.

But the professor also questions the sense of wasting money by importing infested-rice. 

She also raised her concern on the higher chances that the foreign species of weevils from the rice imports could become parasitic in the local agricultural setting.

Production and food security

While the primary concern of the government in rice importation is food security, it must also prioritize the economic and social significance responsible production and post harvest management of staple crops to minimize post harvest losses.

Bryan Novio, a research associate from the entomology laboratory of the IPB, said that “it is impossible to totally eradicate the presence of the weevils” in farm crops but it would mean so much for agricultural practitioners to become knowledgeable of the proper quarantine techniques and post-harvest handling to avoid the proliferation of the various bukbok species.

Fumigation is considered as the most practical technology of disinfesting the grain crops. This involves exposing the infested harvest to certain chemical gases under an appropriate condition to control the growth of the organisms. 

At the moment, organic alternatives and techniques have yet to be developed. 

Novio also calls for quality storage facilities for the local crops and the identification of key strategies in the control of pests in the post-harvest stage of rice produce through trainings and workshops for agricultural extentionists and farmers.

Need for Policy check

Dr. Pio Javier, a retired UPLB-IWEP expert on the bukbok species, emphasizes the need for strict compliance to and implementation of quarantine policies set by the DA-BPI to avoid infestation crises. He also said that local agricultural practitioners must become fully aware of  weevil management.

Before the crisis lands on the local farmlands, one fundamental step is to understand the ecological, biological, and economic aspects of the nationwide bukbok problematique as the local government and agricultural research institutions collaborate in promoting responsible production and proper post-harvest pest management towards attaining food security for the local community.

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