Indonesia has overtaken the Philippines in seaweed production.
"We are not just threatened by Indonesia they have already overtaken us," according to Dr. Danilo B. Largo, director, Office of Research of University of San Carlos in Cebu City .
"Seaweed farming in the Philippines is mature, with simple but more innovative culture techniques," he said. "We have been overtaken because we shared with them our technology."
Not only that. The price of seaweeds from Indonesia, Malaysia and East Africa coast is 20 percent cheaper.
Indonesia started seaweed farming about the same time as the Philippines did in the 1960s. In 2000, Indonesia was producing just 20 metric tons (MT) per year.
By 2008, Indonesia produced 110,000 tons of seaweeds while the Philippines managed only 75,000 tons.
The Philippines used to provide 70 percent of the world’s carrageenan raw material. Indonesia then used to sell unprocessed products, 80 percent of exports in the form of dried (9 kilograms of raw, wet seaweeds produce 1 kilo of dried seaweed).
By 2008, both the Philippines and Indonesia produced about 65,000 tons of the raw materials, each with a 45-percent of the market. Other sources, to a much lesser degree, are Tanzania, Malaysia, China, Madagascar and India.
Those from the Philippines are mostly value-added products while those from Indonesia were mostly raw.
Prices are highly volatile due to wide supply fluctuations and a great increase in demand as China emerged a major seaweeds products manufacturer.
Seaweeds prices peaked at a historic high in in 2008 of $3,000 per ton. Prices have normalized since then.
Mindanao and Indonesia are ideal locations for seaweed farming because further north of the equator more frequent typhoons threaten farms.
Sulawesi, which has wide open seas, harvests about 30,000 tons per year. The ocean topography is flat, unlike the continental shelf in the Philippines.
Filipino farmers grow seaweeds in shallow waters where the plants are susceptible to diseases.
"We’re lagging behind because we’re working with only one or two varieties," said Dr. Gavino C. Trono, a marine scientist and professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines.
"We should diversify, expand to other species and varieties with potential for high-value products," he said. "If not, we are overtaken easily because of our limited space relative to that of Indonesia."
"We must also ensure that farmers who use the technology don’t lose money," Trono said in a recent industry roundtable discussion convened by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).
The industry should look at labor rates, said former Science Secretary Ceferino Follosco, noting that wages in Indonesia are much lower than those in the Philippines.
"Policy makers should look at their advantage, which is too many people with low pay, and then see what we can do with our technology to compete with them," Follosco said.
"The seaweed industry is the fastest-growing part of our agriculture," said Dr. Emil Javier, NAST president and also a former science secretary. "So we must have the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) attention."
"What we want to see is a development program for seaweeds. But it seems seaweeds are not on the DA’s radar," he added.
"There seems to be no one at the DA who is on top of seaweed farming and the industry," Javier said,
Javier was seconded by Trono who noted "there is no champion for seaweeds."
"We’ve been talking of the same seaweed problems 40 years ago," said Follosco. "I’m frustrated."
The infrastructure for better seaweed production is simply non-existent, he pointed out. "Access to transportation is not there, good post-harvest technologies like mechanical dryers are not there. We’re still sun-drying."
Dr. Rhodora V. Azanza, professor of Marine Science at the Marine Science Institute, University of the Philippines-Diliman, agreed, saying that unlike for other crops, "there is not much, if any, infrastructure for seaweeds."
She cited the non-availability of seedlings, which is a big problem, especially after disease outbreaks and typhoons. "There is no working, land-based seedling bank. The technology is there but the infrastructure needs to be developed," she pointed out.
"Farms rely on regeneration, the putol-putol method done by replanting cuttings. This is what is planted when there are no seedlings. Farmers use the same cuttings over and over, making the seaweeds more susceptible to diseases," she said.
"There is no overall design, just bits and pieces, for the seaweed industry," Javier said. "The industry cannot be driven from above. It needs local involvement, including the private sector. Nothing will come out if there is no impact on the people."