The onion problem: DOST, 2 universities eye vertical farms to solve onion scarcity

Jasmin Romero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 25 2023 03:38 PM

MANILA — The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and two universities — Tarlac Agricultural University (TAU) and Nueva Ecija University of Science and Technology (NEUST) — have forged a research partnership to boost the onion supply in the country.

The rains in recent weeks have affected onion farmers, so "innovations and technology-based solutions" are needed to address the issue, said Karen Dañez, the provincial director of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Region 3.

Prices of onion have reached as high as P700 per kilo during the holidays due to lack of supply. 

But should the innovations of the two universities succeed, they guarantee a continuous supply of onions all year round mainly by planting the onions in a controlled environment, thereby increasing yield.

Both universities were given P3 million in grants to fund their research.

For TAU, they are experimenting with planting onions “vertically, using smart technologies” inside a greenhouse, as opposed to planting onions employing traditional farming methods. 

"Ilalagay siya sa controlled environment sa greenhouse. Pagnaka lagay sa greenhouse pwede kayo magproduce ng year-round na onions kasi male-lessen o mae-eliminate ang mga hazards due to climate change, yung pag- ulan, pests and infestation," said Amy Rico, chief of the SMART Agriculture Center of TAU.

(It will be placed in a controlled environment in the greenhouse. By placing it in a greenhouse, you can produce year-round onions because the hazards due to climate change, such as rain, pests and infestation, will be reduced or eliminated.)

Solar energy will also be used in this vertical farming system.

"Kasi pag verticalized posibleng nasa ilalim di masyadong nasisikatan ng araw, kailangang-kailangan yan… which can also be afforable sa mga farmers," said TAU President Max Guillermo.

(Because if it is verticalized, it might be at the bottom where the sun doesn't shine very much, which must be necessary... which can also be affordable to the farmers.)

Meanwhile, NEUST plans to study onion production using hydroponics, or a near “soil-less” system which may also eliminate factors that affect supply and also promise year-round supply.

“This is a new.. di pa masyadong na-e-explore... Parang ginagamit siya sa soil-less, di na tayo gagamit ng lupa. Gagamit na lang natin is nutrient solution, sa tubig lang siya mabubuhay. Kailangan siya ng lupa pero di by bulk,” said Arnold Damaso, dean of NEUST's College of Agriculture.

(This is a new one.. it has not been explored much yet... If it is being used in soil-less, we will not use land anymore. We'll just use a nutrient solution, it can now live in water. It needs soil but not by bulk.)

“Sa traditional onion production continuous ang rain, there is a possibility na malulusaw ang onions. Sa hydroponics nako-control ang amount ng water, nutrients and infestation, malilimit,” Damaso said.

(In traditional onion production, the rain is continuous, there is a possibility that the onions will dissolve. In hydroponics, you can control the amount of water and nutrients, and infestation is limited.)

A hydroponics system is also viable since the soil has depleted nutrients.

“Since nagde-deplete na po majority of the soil… nababago na ang nutrients, kumokonti na ang lupang pinagtatamnan natin, this technology can help na.. ma-maximize natin ang facilities natin o di ginagamit,” he added.

(Since the majority of the soil is depleting... the nutrients are being changed, the land we are planting is shrinking, this technology can help... we can maximize our facilities.)

Both universities are studying how these technologies can be cost-effective if found to be useful.

However, they admit that the farmers may have to invest to acquire the technology but they can also use used or recycled materials.

“Ang burden lang po, sa start of the project siyempre establishment ng materials, pero pag na establish na dun palang makikita ang improvement… pero we can produce kahit 'yung mga pinag lumaan na gamit, we can recycle than. mga tinatapon na styro cup, we can use that. dun talaga kami nagtatanim… yung mga tinatapon lang…Para ma lessen ang burden ng farmers at mautilize ang mga area kahit maliit, pwede kang magtayo ng simpleng net house and you can produce high valued vegetables,” Damaso said.

“Initially mahal ang greenhouse so magpapa labas sila ng pera pero kugn year round production kikitain din nila yung pagko construct ng greenhouse,” Rico said.

(The only burden is, at the start of the project, of course, the establishment of the materials, but once it is established, the improvement can be seen... But we can produce even those that are used, we can recycle than. Discarded styro cups, we can use that. That's where we actually grow... just the ones that are thrown away... To ease the burden of farmers and utilize the areas even if they are small, you can build a simple net house and you can produce high-valued vegetables. Initially, the greenhouse is expensive, so they will have to spend money, but with year-round production, they will also earn from the construction of the greenhouse.)

The research is slated to be conducted throughout 2023, but the DOST is optimistic that the results of the research may come out as early as the middle of the year.