The Scientist, the Patent and the Mangoes - Tripling the Mango Yield in the Philippines

June 2008


Dr. Ramon Barba: Biodata

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(Photos: WIPO/J-F Arrou-Vignod)

Born:
  1939, Philippines
Education:  BS in Agronomy (fruits), University of the Philippines; MSc Horticulture, University of Georgia (1963), PhD Horticulture, University of Hawaii, (1967)
Honors:  Elected to the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines, 2004

Mangoes. One of the world’s most prized tropical fruits. And over one million metric tonnes of them were harvested in the Philippines last year. But it was not ever thus. The prolific mango production in the Philippines is due in large measure to the ingenuity of one man.

Forty years ago, Filipino horticulturalist, Dr. Ramon Barba developed a simple method for inducing early flowering in mango plants. His invention, widely used today, revolutionized the Philippine mango industry, making the crop one of the country’s top export earners.

Dr. Barba now features in a new WIPO short film, which was released on World Intellectual Property Day as the latest in a series of profiles of inventors and creators from developing countries. In the following extracts from his interviews with the WIPO team he describes his invention, its impact and his fight for the patent.

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The problem

I studied Tropical Fruit Production at university and was always very interested in the problems of mango production. You see, in the Philippines mangoes have always been very good. But before 1976 it was commercially a neglected fruit because it has such erratic fruiting habits. It is very seasonal. It only fruits one month in a whole year. And if it fruits well one year, it doesn’t fruit the next year. Even in the regular season it is erratic.

“We already had a unique practice in the Philippines of using smoke to bring on flowering. But it was a tedious practice, and expensive. So as students we were all thinking, how can we make the mango flower?

The break through

“We had concluded that it was ethylene in the smoke which was producing the effect. But you can’t just use ethylene - it is a gas, you’d have to cover the tree. So I started experimenting with other chemicals. 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. “It worked - and that was the beginning of everything.

“The process was very 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.

Economic impact

“The use of potassium nitrate to induce flowering has revolutionized the mango industry in the Philippines. You spray it on and the tree fruits. So you double or triple the yield. And you can make it fruit at different times of the year.

“It has been said that no single plant commodity has benefited as much from a single technology as the mango has from potassium nitrate induction. From 1974, when it was virtually neglected, it has become our number one fruit crop, bringing a total revenue of something like US$ 46 million. Right now, the Philippines are among the biggest mango exporters in the world.

“The effects are felt in all areas related to mango production. Everybody’s benefited: the companies selling pest control chemicals, the people who harvest, the people who package, the people who bring the fruit to market, the people who make baskets for mangoes…

But the trees?

“You would expect that by forcing the trees so much beyond normal fruiting they would suffer. So we made a study and found that, yes, the trees are affected: after eight years of induction they are 15 percent smaller than those that are not treated. But there was no bad effect, no damage to the mango. Trees that have been sprayed with potassium nitrate for more than 30 years are still producing.

Oops - No patent!

“I was so overjoyed because it is something that any grower can use, that I forgot all about the patenting aspect - until I read in the paper that somebody else had patented potassium nitrate for mango flower induction. I said, “But how can this be? I thinkI discovered it; everybody in the scientific community thinks I discovered it; and here it is patented!”

“The Patent Office explained that there was an application but that no patent had been granted yet. They referred me to a lawyer. He told me if a patent was granted, then the other person would own my invention. I would not be recognized as the inventor, so would lose the credit scientifically and lose any financial possibility. I said, "So what do we do?” He said, "We apply for a patent and contest it.” Fortunately because of the records I had, I could show that the invention was mine. So the process went through and the Patent Office gave me the patent.

Encouraging inventiveness

“I think creativity is a natural talent. But it can be developed. Creativity leads to invention. An inventor may have some instincts that are different, but it is important to learn how to follow those instincts. This can be developed by training, by example, and by being made aware that creative instincts are important.

“For me, it started in school. My professors didn’t compliment me about my grades in school – maybe because I didn't get very good grades. But they used to say: "Hey that's nice, that's a new idea! Or, “You solved this very well!" So I become encouraged to think that way.

“If what you are doing is recognized as important, then you can continue better. In some countries with better facilities, or where innovation is better recognized, then you have more inspiration, and maybe faster results. In the Philippines you have to struggle more and some people are discouraged –they never realize their potential.

Patently positive

“I learned that patents can do many things. Patenting both protects your rights and helps you make the benefits of your invention available.Patents give some inspiration because the reward is there, and the recognition. In the Philippines there needs to be more information, more education about it. If we could introduce the subject in school science classes it would be a big step.

“I am very proud of having invented the potassium nitrate technology. As a scientist, I feel that one technology that has a positive impact on agriculture justifies a lifetime of research.”

 
By Elizabeth March, WIPO Magazine Editorial Team.
Based on film footage by Jean-Francois Arrou-Vignod and Nicholas Hopkins-Hall, WIPO Film, Multimedia and Internet Section.

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