Before the mid-1970s, mangoes weren’t considered commercially viable due to their erratic fruit-bearing habits. “It only fruits one month in a whole year,” the Filipino scientist and horticulturist Dr. Ramon C. Barba once recalled in an interview. “And if it fruits well one year, it doesn’t fruit the next year. Even in the regular season, it is erratic.”
Some farmers tried to “smoke the trees”—burn leaves and other materials under the trees—to stimulate flowering. This proved to be not only a tedious practice but a costly one as well. “You have to smoke out a mango tree for two continuous weeks to get results. It was very expensive because you had to burn lots and lots of grass to sustain,” Barba said, describing the process to the Inquirer. Eager to find a way to produce mangoes throughout the year, the scientist took it upon himself to look into the matter closely.
The young Barba grew up among fruit trees in a small farm, which is likely why his path led to horticulture. He took up Agriculture at the UP Los Baños (UPLB) in the 1950s and eventually majored in agronomy and fruit production—a choice inspired by his grandfather, Juan Cabanas, a former officer of the Bureau of Plants Industry, and Dr. LG Gonzales, one of Barba’s professors. When the chance came for the latter to teach at UPLB, he took it as an opportunity to work closely with Gonzales on the professor’s research on smudging, or smoking out mango trees to induce flowering.
When he pursued his graduate studies at the University of Georgia, however, his research on mangoes had to be put aside. He later attended the University of Hawaii to take up his doctorate in plant physiology, and there he encountered Dr. A Carl Leopold, one of his professors, who happened to have done research on plant growth regulators. According to the Inquirer, Leopold’s study revealed that “when ethephon is absorbed by plant tissues, it is broken down into naturally occurring compounds—carbon dioxide, phosphate and the plant hormone ethylene—causing thinning, loosening or ripening in various crops.”
When Barba returned to the Philippines, he resumed his research on mangoes. Working in Quimara Farms, a private company, allowed him to experiment on different chemicals that could be applied on trees. “Potassium nitrate was low on the list, but I included it because I knew from other studies that there is a link between potassium nitrate and ethylene,” the scientist told WIPO.
The genius behind the technology Barba discovered for mango trees is quite simple. “You just get one kilo of potassium nitrate, put it in 100 liters of water, spray it on the plant once—and within a week you can see the buds forming. In two weeks, the buds are already forming into flowers. It was.... unprecedented. I have never seen any reaction so spectacular,” Barba said in the WIPO interview.
The Filipino scientist’s discovery of the use of potassium nitrate to induce the flowering of the mango trees revolutionized the mango industry in the Philippines. It allowed farmers to double or even triple their yield, and make their mango trees fruit at different times of the years. Trees that had been treated with potassium nitrate remained healthy and continued to bear fruits even after 30 years, said Barba.
The Philippines became the second largest exporter of mangoes in the world. According to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Barba’s pioneering work on the induction of flowering and fruiting of mango resulted in the year-round availability of fresh mangoes. “The regularity of mango production is the key ingredient in the development of mango exports, which gave rise to an entirely new industry of processed mango products,” the article said. Mangoes contributed P40 billion annually to the Philippine economy, according to a 2014 story.
For his important contributions in the field of plant physiology, Dr. Ramon C. Barba was conferred the Order of National Scientist in 2014 by then President Benigno Aquino III.
Mango-producing countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Australia had since adopted Barba’s mango induction technology. And although it was patented in USA, England, Australia, and New Zealand, the Filipino scientist did not seek any royalty so ordinary farmers can freely use the technology he developed.
“I just did something I wanted to do. I just did my job wanting to help do things better,” he told the Inquirer. He also called his discovery, “tsamba.”
In a 2014 interview with Rappler, Lilian Pateña, an internationally recognized Filipino scientist, said Barba was her mentor, adding he’s someone always brimming with ideas. “Kulang ang katawan para magawa ang kaniyang mga idea,” said Pateña. He instilled in her the value of working hard. Pateña is known in the field for discovering micropropagation that helped establish the banana industry in the Philippines.
Pateña’s description of Barba can be gleaned from the national scientist’s immense contributions thru the years. Aside from his research on mangoes, Barba and his research team at the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) in UPLB, developed the tissue culture protocol for banana that allows it to produce large quantities of robust and disease-free planting materials. The DOST said this resulted in a major shift in banana production system not only in the Philippines but also in many Asian, African and Latin American countries.
Similarly, Barba also established the tissue culture protocol for sugar cane, making it possible to produce large quantities of disease-free planting materials faster. “This became the standard practice in disease cleaning of sugar cane varieties. Tissue culture of sugar cane has become an integral part of sugar cane agriculture worldwide,” noted the DOST article.
Barba and his team of researchers developed micropropagation protocols for more than 40 important species of ornamental, fruit, and plantation crops, aquarium plants, and forest trees including cassava, white potato, rattan, bamboo, ramie, derris, garlic, and shallot, in addition to banana and sugar cane.
Dr. Ramon Barba passed away last Sunday. He was 82. “As a national scientist, Doctor Barba is entitled to state honors and burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani,” wrote Michael Tan in his column in the Inquirer, “but it will be more meaningful to remember him by talking more about his contributions to science, including mangoes all year round, in textbooks and in schools, and to inspire young people to consider the agricultural sciences for college.”
Barba’s lifetime of research has positively impacted the world of agriculture. The world will continue to reap its fruits in the decades to come.