Could an ancient practice be the key to food security in Southeast Asia?

For hundreds of years, indigenous populations have been tapping the sweet, sugary sap of palm trees as feed for their livestock. Introducing this practice into modern farming could help feed the region’s growing population.

“Two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land is actually used for feeding livestock rather than humans directly,” said Craig Jamieson, a researcher from the World Agroforestry Centre based in the Philippines.

A farmer in Butuan City, Mindanao, the Philippines harvesting nipa sap. Photo: David Hagerman

In the Philippines alone, 30 percent of arable land is used for growing maize to feed livestock. Yet a much more efficient way of producing animal feed exists. The method has been used for centuries in Southeast Asia, supporting a great number of livestock and high human populations even with limited resources. Despite its potential to become a major solution for food insecurity, this traditional technology has been largely neglected and almost forgotten by farmers, agricultural scientists and policy makers.

Tapping the potential of palm

For hundreds of years, indigenous populations in the Philippines and Indonesia have been tapping the sweet, sugary sap of palm trees and feeding them to animals as their primary energy source. For example, in the 16th Century when Magellan arrived in the Philippines, he found local people tapping palm trees.

In the modern era, scientific studies have backed up the effectiveness of this practice, proving that palm sap is the livestock equivalent of rocket fuel. For example, a study conducted in Cambodia indicated that pigs fed daily with 7–8kg of palm syrup had an average growth rate of 250–550g per day over five months. This lean gain is much higher than the 60g/day average growth rate of pigs fed with conventional feeds. Producing the 7–8kg of palm syrup per pig would mean tapping 1–2 trees per day. Aside from increased daily lean gain, using nipa sap to produce palm juice for pigs gave farmers 14 times higher economic returns per tree than when it was used to produce sugar syrup.

The productivity of palms is truly extraordinary. Unlike annual crops, they are able to photosynthesize 365 days a year, converting sunlight to sugar that can be directly extracted and used. Applying basic physics, it’s a fundamentally more efficient process than most of today’s food production. It also enables much higher yields: typically four times the calorific yield per hectare compared with annuals such as maize.

Determining if the sap is ready for harvesting entails checking the nuts found with the flower. If nuts within are sweet, farmers could start harvesting the sap. Photo: David Hagerman

Improved food production efficiency through nipa
For the most part, the common annual crops have been the focus of agricultural science and technology development over the last century, while palm tapping remains a cottage industry to this day. The main problem is the labour costs because harvesting requires climbing a tall tree twice a day to extract the sap from severed flowering shoots in the canopy.

To overcome this problem, leading scientists in the Philippines have been focusing on a low-growing tree that can be tapped for sugar without the need for climbing. Rodel Lasco and Craig Jamieson of the World Agroforestry Centre, and Eufemio Rasco, the former head of PhilRice, have been promoting the use of the mangrove palm, Nypa fruticans, for this purpose. Its flowering shoots are produced at waist height, making tapping much quicker and easier.

Another benefit of nipa is that it grows in brackish water so does not require precious freshwater for its production. Hence, it saves both land and water, the two critical resources required to promote food security in the world. Nipa leaves are also used as roofing material, adding yet another benefit.

A farmer from Butuan City, Mindanao, the Philippines bending and massaging the stalk of nipa as part of the preparation process which will ensure that the sap will flow well when tapped. Photo: David Hagerman

Pork is the most popular meat in the Philippines and it has been shown that both pigs and ducks can thrive on a liquid sugar diet. If, in addition to this, the animals’ manure is used to make clean biogas for cooking, the whole system could go a long way in meeting food and energy needs across the region.

Promoting the adoption of this system around the long coastlines of Southeast Asia will entail gathering practitioners to share their knowledge of tapping nipa’s sap for feed and encouraging them to share what they have learned with others.
The three researchers’ vision for the system is featured in a new publication, Biofuels and Bioenergy, published by John Wiley & Sons.

ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.'

Camille Mendizabal

Camille Mendizabal is the communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre in the Philippines. She implements the country’s communications strategy and supports communications-related activities for the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change and Food Security, South East Asia. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Development Communication .

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