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Saving the underutilized indigenous crops

Victoriano B. Guiam


In 2010, the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) in Batac City sounded the alarm on the vanishing indigenous crops of Ilocos Norte. MMSU researchers had found that there are 46 indigenous food plants (IFPs) in the daily diets of various tribal groups in seven remote upland towns of Ilocos Norte that include the Tingguian, Yapayao, Igorot, and Isneg. These IFPs include herbs, palms, shrubs and undershrubs, vines or lianas, grasses, and trees. The researchers had observed that "despite possible genetic erosion brought about by adverse environmental changes, there are still insignificant efforts to safeguard and conserve this component of agrobiodiversity." (Fernandez, 2010)

The Philippines is one of the most important places in the world on diversity of life. More than 52,177 described species are known, of which more than half are found nowhere else on the planet. Philippine biodiversity, therefore, is part and parcel of global heritage. Of these species, the country is known to have more than 3,000 diverse plants that have played important roles in the history of its inhabitants. Through the centuries, Filipinos have found various uses for these species as food, medicine, fiber, essential oil, commercial timber or ornamental.

Cultivated crops, and their closely related wild species, form part of what is known as "plant genetic resources" or PGR. There is global concern for PGR because of genetic erosion and loss of biodiversity. The major culprits have been: 1) the introduction and spread of high yielding and new varieties of crops that have displaced indigenous plants; 2) intensification of the agricultural system and establishment of commercial plantations that have made growing habitats less favorable for indigenous plants, and overexploitation and excessive gathering of wild plants, inadvertent introduction of pests; and 3) destruction of the natural ecosystem, due to population pressures and urbanization, including environmental pollution. Additional threats have come from natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and tsunamis that can destroy the habitat of indigenous plants, and abiotic stresses such as droughts and floods. However, the biggest threats are in people's neglect and apathy towards conservation of this national patrimony.

Cognizant of the big challenge to PGR, the MMSU officials are setting up a Biodiversity Center that will address the problems concerning Ilocos Norte's disappearing indigenous food plants. Among the first to respond through a declaration of support was newly-installed Ilocos Norte Governor, Ms. Imee Marcos, who envisions the center to form the core of an eco-tourism thrust in the province.

Also in the northern Philippines, the Cordillera region is home to many tribal groups - the Batad people. The region is noted, not only for its cultural history, but also for its rich biodiversity of indigenous plant species which find use as food and folk medicine that are mainly harvested from the wild. All has not been well for this Shangri-La as forest and watershed degradation have occurred at a rampant pace and much of the biodiversity has been lost. Changes in the diet of the people and preference for more western vegetables as a result of cultural inroads from the outside have also displaced indigenous vegetables and put the rich genetic diversity at severe risk. As in Ilocos Norte, university-based researchers are leading the way and are finding ways to conserve and multiply these plants.


However, unlike MMSU, the Benguet State University (BSU) already has a facility, the Semi-Temperate Vegetable Research and Development Centre that looks after indigenous vegetable species. Recently, the Centre made the significant discovery that, while the Cordillera people make use of many of the wild edible plant species for food and medicine, a big number of other wild species with potential nutritional value are being ignored or are used only as pasture for livestock. This preferential treatment is thus contributing to the slow disappearance of Benguet's many species.

In 11 municipalities in the Cordilleras, more than 49 wild species have been noted as being harvested for their young shoots, tops, stalks, flowers, leaves, bulbs and fruits to be eaten as vegetables. Many of belong to the Asteraceae (Compositae), Solanaceae, Amaranthaceae and Brassicaceae families of plants. These include gagattang, a local word for several thistle-like species such as Sonchusoleraceus L (common sow thistle) and S. arvensis (perennial sow thistle) that reportedly are high in flavonoids and are used to treat indigestion, fever and asthma. Puriket (Bidens pilosa) is rich in iodine, which makes it useful in preventing and treating goiter, while its young roots are used to cure rheumatism and to treat wounds. Kalunay (Amaranthus gracilis) and papait (Solanum spp.) are also used as food and medicine by the locals.

According to Professor Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio of BSU, 11 indigenous wild species may be found in the local markets of the Cordillera region. While utilization can work to increase attention and care for indigenous plant species, the increased attention can also put them under further threat when there is no provision for conserving and replacing those taken from the wild. To counter this, Lirio and her colleagues are working with the womenfolk in identifying and documenting the wild species that are used as vegetables and as medicines. Their aim is to raise the levels of awareness and understanding on the importance of wild species by the local people and to identify the best approach for their utilization and conservation.

Professor Lirio's group has turned out a book, titled, 'Indigenous Semi-temperate Vegetables of Cordillera' that documents the indigenous species. Lirio would like to see the book incorporated into the local school syllabus. "If children grow up knowing how useful these indigenous vegetables are, it could change the way the current young generation view them as only a poor man's food," said Professor Lirio. "It is unfortunate if the indigenous wild plants of the area shall be lost unless the work in raising awareness of these species is taken up and their nutritional and medicinal benefits are, once more, truly valued, not just by isolated communities but all across the northern Philippines", she added. (Nanzala & Gonzales-Lirio, 2008).

Also in BSU is an effort to conserve traditional rice varieties and vegetable legumes. Benguet and the rest of the Cordilleras are rich in traditional rice varieties and indigenous legumes that are rich sources of food nutrients. However, farmers' adoption of agribusiness is having a negative effect on traditional crop varieties. According to Dr. Macario Cadatal, dean of the BSU College of Agriculture, "the trend is for farmers to commercialize more cash crops. And with globalization demanding the use of modern varieties, production patterns are being groomed for the bank." This comes at the expense of the old and "less productive", but less demanding, local crop varieties that are more suited to the local growing environment.

The introduction of modern varieties has been both a boon and a bane as it has caused the neglect of local varieties of rice and legumes and the disappearance of much of the germplasm. Local rice varieties, called "rice landraces," that are under threat include the kintuman, bangkitan, kabal, butalga and makanining, according to Dr. Belinda Tad-awan, a BSU agronomist. (Cariño, 2006).

An environmental NGO active in the Cordilleras, the Cordillera Ecological Center (or PINE TREE), is making strides towards the conservation of indigenous crop plants. It has established four community seedbanking sites in the region. In Karao, Bokod, in the province of Benguet, some 12 indigenous rice varieties have been saved and are now being grown by the Ibalois and Kalanhuyas. The second is in Lusod, Kabayan, in Benguet, where 29 endemic sweet potato varieties are now being grown for many uses by the same tribal groups. The third seedbank is in Caponga and the fourth is in Central Tublay, also in Benguet, where Ibaloi women-farmers now use seven indigenous bean varieties which is a way of conserving the germplasm. (Bengwayan, 2010)

BAR joins the fray

The Bureau of Agricultural Research itself has been drumming up support for the conservation of indigenous crop species. This is in line with one of its major thrusts: Saving the agricultural biodiversity.

An early effort was a BAR partnership with the Taiwan-based R&D institution, The World Vegetable Center (also known as the Asian Vegetable R&D Centre), in which lesser known vegetables such as bayok-bayok, himbabao, kulitis, talinum, basella, and lablab were given their due importance in promoting nutrition. The collaborative project titled, "Promotion of Indigenous Vegetable for Poverty Alleviation and Nutrition Improvement of Rural Households in the Philippines," was implemented in the country in 2001-2006 through DA-Regional Field Units and the National Nutrition Council in cooperation with the local government units (LGUs). This initiative also jived very well with the Department of Agriculture's (DA) program on sustainable nutrition advocacy by promoting production, marketing and consumption of highly nutritious vegetables, and BAR's national RDE program on indigenous plants for health and wellness.

The project found that the "less popular veggies" continue to be underutilized because of the lack of available germplasm and seeds for widespread use, inadequate information on their use and importance, lack of information about their performance and input requirements, and insufficient information on how indigenous vegetables can fit into existing production systems. Furthermore, the traditional varieties are being replaced by high yielding commercial varieties, which are more profitable and preferred by most producers and farmers, thus genetic resource of indigenous veggies are dwindling and even at risk of extinction.

The project undertook the introduction and selection of indigenous vegetables and promoted these through technology demonstrations on proper cultivation and utilization in selected, target rural areas in the Philippines particularly those with high prevalence of malnutrition and poverty, i.e., the poorest provinces in Regions 5, 6, and 10. Likewise, the project promoted the growing of indigenous vegetables in home gardens and the production of seeds.

During the project's field days, indigenous vegetables were exhibited in plots for technology demonstration that showcased unfamiliar varieties of eggplant, amaranths, cucurbits, radish, bottle gourd, luffa (smooth and ridged types), wax gourd, bittergourd, snake gourd, squash, jute, basella, kangkong, ivy gourd, basil, lablab, rosella, okra, yardlong bean, winged bean, cucumber, tomato, and vegetable soybean.

Some 10 promising indigenous vegetables were found to have great potential based on nutrient content, medicinal and health benefits, non-food uses, and volume of production and food preparation. These included: alugbati (Basella alba),ampalaya for leaves or bayok-bayok (Momordica charantia), himbabao (Allaeanthus luzonicus), kulitis (Amaranthus spp.), labong (bamboo shoot, upo or bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceria), malunggay (Moringa spp.), pako (fern), saluyot (Corchorus spp.), and talinum (Talinum triangulare). (dela Cruz, 2009)

BAR is also participating in an agricultural biodiversity conservation initiative together with the DA Central Office, DENR, DILG and environmental NGOs under an umbrella project led by UNDP Philippines titled, "Partnerships for Biodiversity Conservation: Mainstreaming in Local Agricultural Landscapes" which shall commence in 2011. Under this project, BAR shall take part in the development of policy and tools to assess the impacts of DA policies, plans and programs on biodiversity; and in the development of a national program for promotion of indigenous crops and biodiversity friendly agricultural practices. It will also work in partnership with LGUs and its field offices in the sites to develop capacities of LGUs and implement these tools in demonstration areas.

Under the interagency biodiversity project, a specific responsibility of BAR is to partner with LGUs, academic/research institutions and farmers to set up protocols for in-situ/on-farm crop conservation. BAR shall develop a strategy and program for assisting LGUs to develop systems of in-situ conservation in farmers' fields and ensure sustainable operation of a community-based seed supply system. The promotion of indigenous crops and will be supported by an information and advocacy campaign so that upland farmers will learn the importance of propagating indigenous crops and sustainable management practices, and the benefits that they will gain. Among the crops to be promoted are indigenous rice varieties and indigenous vegetables.

BAR also funded a project implemented by Bioversity, International titled, "Conservation and Use of Tropical Fruit Species Diversity in the Philippines". It responded to the need to systematically document existing collections of selected fruit species indigenous to the country (e.g., jackfruit, pili, mangosteen and durian), develop improved guidelines for their management, and characterize and evaluate these genetic resources so that their useful traits as well as valuable accessions are identified. The project's partners include the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory of UPLB, PCARRD, BPI and selected SUCs. Expected results are a national fruit species collection database, accessions of various indigenous tropical fruit species with desirable traits identified for utilization, and a Framework Plan for the improvement of these tropical fruit species.

Everyday heroism for indigenous crop conservation

Elsewhere in the country there are heroic efforts on the conservation of indigenous crop plants that are unheralded and unsung. Little is known about these efforts except those that have reached the mass media and the internet such as the Benguet experiences. There is the purple yam (ube) that is grown by the communities of Corella in Bohol and Kapangan in Benguet; Native taro (gabi) is grown by the people of Sablan, Benguet; and indigenous rice varieties that are being conserved by concerned organizations in Panay.

Ube and other indigenous root crops are also the crops of interest to the Philippine Root Crops Research & Training Center which has gathered and protected these in ex situ collections while local varieties of coconut are held by the Philippine Coconut Authority. Not to be left out is the Philippine Rice Research Institute which counts indigenous rice varieties among its accessions.

Utilization is one way of conserving indigenous crops and this has been the experience with abaca which enjoys the patronage of the growing communities in Regions 5 and 8 and the Fiber Industry Development Authority. The same is true with pili of the Bicol region which accounts for 82% of the country's production. As Pili has all the potentials for being a top export commodity (it can compete with macadamia, cashew, almond and walnut in terms of quality), the Department of Agriculture has launched the Pili Development Program to assist the Bicol communities, particularly those in Albay, in the production of pili nuts, pili resin, pili oil and other products.

Not to be outdone is the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). Based on the most recent inventory of the UPLB-based National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory (NPGRL), the laboratory holds a collection of nearly 400 species of various plants that include cereals, fibers, sugar cane, forage and pasture crops, fruit trees, legumes, nut trees, oil crops, plantation crops, root crops(including yams), small fruits, and vegetables. Of these, about 75 percent is of local origin. (UPLB-NPGRL. Unpublished document)

There is a need to safeguard the remaining PGR to conserve biodiversity for the next generations of Filipinos. More diversity means that our options for providing for future needs are much greater. At the same time, their potentials should be fully explored to optimize their utilization especially in broadening the food base to feed the growing population. (Antonio et al, 2010). However, it looks impossible to implement any conservation effort without involving the communities where the indigenous crop species are found, as well as other stakeholders.

Finding the way forward


Following their study on the vanishing indigenous crops of Ilocos Norte, MMSU researchers have come to their own conclusion on formal efforts to promote the sustainable conservation and utilization of indigenous crops. This includes several actions (Antonio et al, 2010). They recommend that academe and R&D institutions undertake: proactive research on nutritive components of IFPs as well as development of new recipes and processed products; adaptability and domestication trial on wild plant varieties; improvement of cultural management for increased productivity; wider IEC campaign on the importance of IFPs and how people can help in conserving them; and capability building for potential adopters, entrepreneurs, and growers on processing, product development, and improved cultural management of crops.

On the part of LGUs, the MMSU researchers urge them to promulgate local (municipal or provincial) policies and ordinances on: identification and conservation of endemic or rare plant species' habitats; banning massive collection and export of unique species; integration and institutionalization of barangay and home gardens in all municipal Clean and Green Programs; and establishment of community genebanks or seedbanks.

The Department of Education is exhorted to integrate IFPs on gardening activities of both elementary and high schools in the province.

The PINE TREE NGO in Benguet has also been dutifully observing the community/ stakeholder participation principle and, based on its experience, has concluded that there are five principles or "laws" of genetic conservation to the implementation of community-based seedbanking (Bengwayan, 2010). These are:

  1. Agricultural diversity can only be safeguarded through the use of diverse strategies. No one strategy could hope to preserve and protect what took so many human cultures, farming systems and environments so long to produce.
  2. What agricultural diversity is saved depends on who is consulted. How much is saved depends on how many people are involved.
  3. Agricultural diversity will not be saved unless it is used. The value of diversity is in its use.
  4. Agricultural diversity cannot be saved without saving the farm community. Conversely, the farm community cannot be saved without saving diversity.
  5. The need for diversity is never-ending. Therefore, our efforts to preserve this diversity can never cease.


1. Antonio, Menisa A.; Rodel T. Utrera; Epifania O. Agustin; Dionisio L. Jamias; Araceli J. Badar; and Miriam E. Pascua. 2010. Indigenous Food Plants (IFPs) for Increased Food Sufficiency in Ilocos Norte, Philippines. SEARCA Policy Brief Series. 2010-3

2. Bengwayan, Michael A., 2010. Philippine Indigenous NGO Seedbanking For Food Security. Kuro-Kuro blogsite.

3. Bordado, Emily. Bicol Indigenous Crops to be Revitalized. Unpublished document

4. Dela Cruz, Rita T. 2009. BAR promotes 'unpopular' veggies to address malnutrition and dwindling genetic resource. BAR Online (

5. Cariño, Delmar. 2006 "Experts fear extinction of indigenous crops". Philippine Daily Inquirer. August 22, 2006<

6. Fernandez, Rudy A. 2010. "Imee backs effort to protect indigenous food plants". The Philippine Star. October 10, 2010

7. Nanzala, Ebby and Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio. 2008. "Nature's choice: Utilizing wild plants in the Philippines." New Agriculturist. May 2008 ( as of 28 January 2011