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Defenders of the environment: Outstanding environmental research, scientists spotlighted in NESA

Environmental Science is one of the most versatile fields in academia. It examines, among many other things, the effects of natural and man-made processes and the interactions within ecosystems. Further, it is the field uniquely situated to tackle the many problems that plague the environment, anthropogenic or otherwise. In this respect, the many Environmental Science research projects in the Philippines are not only relevant to human lives and livelihoods, but also to local ecosystems and the millions of species that inhabit them.

To highlight some of these exceptional research endeavors, the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the highest recognition and scientific advisory board of the Philippines, held the ceremony for the 2020 NAST Environmental Science Award (NESA) via Zoom and Facebook Live last July 24.

In his welcoming remarks, Academician Fabian Dayrit,  NAST Vice President, expressed his concern for “society’s accelerated encroachment on nature”, and urged others to join the fight for environmental conservation. This optimism was also shared by NAST President and Academician Rhodora Azanza who encouraged younger generations to pursue opportunities for “outstanding” research.

Economy-resource conundrum

Dr. Anthony S.F. Chiu, a University Fellow from the Industrial Engineering Department of De La Salle University, presented one of the two 2020 NESA special citations papers, Resource efficiency of the Philippine economy: A material flow accounting perspective (1955-2016)

Chiu first displayed a graph showing the direct relationship between the growth of resources with the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country, accompanied by a graph displaying an inverse relationship between GDP growth and environmental impact, suggesting that our current economic activities can be heavily destructive to the environment. In essence, the objective of the study had been to “find a pattern of resource consumption and efficiency of the Philippine economy in transforming our resources into GDP”—maximizing GDP gained from resources, according to Chiu.

Chiu cited the need for “sufficiency” or using less resources, as well as “efficiency”, indicating the significance of producing more with less. To realize this optimal and sustainable mode of resource consumption, Chiu’s research employed the economy-wide material flow analysis (EWMFA) pioneered by the European Statistical Office, which accounts for four types of resources: biomass, fossil fuels, nonmetallic minerals, and metal ores. Under this framework, input resources include domestic-extracted materials, foreign imports, and excess byproducts and waste. 

Referencing a paper he had published in 2011, Chiu showcased a linear graph comparing GDP and resources from 2000 to 2009. The GDP and resources were shown to mostly overlap, indicating that most of the resources were converted into GDP. With this he comments that “we are still [doing] quite well compared to other Asia pacific neighbors” and that .4 USD is earned for every kg of resources.

However, Chiu stated, “It is not enough…we need to partially, if not, absolute[ly] decouple the two”—that is, decreasing the environmental impacts of resource use while getting the most from the limited resources.

Underneath the mangrove

The second NESA special citation paper, titled The role of reactive iron in long-term carbon sequestration in mangrove sediments: Implications on “blue carbon” estimates in the Philippines, was presented by Dr. Ian A. Navarrete, an associate professor from Southern Leyte State University.

“Mangrove ecosystems are one of the most important ecosystems that provide valuable economic and ecological services,” Navarrete articulated. He reasoned that despite occupying only 0.5 percent of the global coastal ocean, “mangroves contribute up to 14 percent of global carbon [dioxide] sequestration”—which is a natural process wherein carbon dioxide is absorbed in organic-rich sediments to create organic carbon (OC), thereby helping to combat carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The mechanisms by which mangroves are able to store that much carbon dioxide have yet to be fully explained.

On average, more than 20 percent of organic carbon in aquatic sediments are associated with reactive iron (FER) molecules, and by being bound to FER, this organic matter is able to acquire “marked stability and resistance to microbial attack”, Navarrete explained. This leads one to ask what the role of FER is in preserving OC in mangrove sediments.

To answer this, Navarrete’s study sought to determine the concentration of OC and FER and explain their relationship; determine whether there is a preference in mangroves, be it terrestrial or aquatic mangroves, for favoring FER and OC reactions; and quantify the amount of FER bound to OC.

Through several laboratory analyses, Navarrete demonstrated that the OC and FER concentrations both increase with depth, and that FER prefers to bind with terrestrial rather than marine OC. The two compounds were also found to interact through coprecipitation—a process wherein multiple substances are precipitated from a solution. Finally, the data showed that, in mangrove sediments, up to 15.01±7.35 percent of the total OC—a significant amount—is directly bound to FER. 

With that, Navarrete recommended a few approaches toward mangrove restoration such as the seaward planting of mangroves and an economic re-valuation of mangroves.

Microplastic invasion

Bagging the 2020 NESA honor was Dr. Emilyn  Q. Espiritu, the executive director of the Ateneo Research Institute of Science and Engineering, for her study titled Assessment of Quantity and Quality of Microplastics in the Sediments, Waters, Oysters, and Selected Fish Species in Key Sites Along the Bombong Estuary and the Coastal Waters of Ticalan in San Juan, Batangas

Espiritu’s research aimed to quantify and characterize the microplastic contamination present in the water, sediments, and within oysters along selected streams and coastal sites, and to assess whether these microplastics—particles of plastic five millimeters or less in size—were hazardous to marine life. Like larger plastics, microplastics are “stable, durable, and [could] potentially last hundreds of years” in the environment, Espiritu warned. 

Sediment samples from downstream sites were recorded to contain an average of 11 microplastics per 400 grams, while water samples from downstream and coastal sites were both recorded to contain six microplastics per 500 milliliters on average. Polyethylene, one of the most widely-used materials today, was found to be the main composition of the microplastics.

Meanwhile, a total of 40 microplastics were found from a sample of 36 oysters from downstream sites, whereas 51 microplastics in total were obtained from 38 fish samples from coastal areas, with a majority of the contamination found in reef fishes. Espiritu cautioned that these microplastics may result in feeding and reproductive problems if ingested, driving home the importance not just of the research conducted, but also of minimizing plastic production and usage. 

This contamination may eventually result in “bioaccumulation in higher order trophic levels”—wherein the microplastics would travel up the food chain, concentrating the extent of the contamination, thus affecting more aquatic species and even potentially affecting public and environmental health. With this, Espiritu urged the effective implementation of Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which seeks to establish an ecological solid waste management program.

Local studies on the development of programs for a more sustainable and ecological use of resources; the quantitative revelation of the potentials of the relatively uncommon mangrove forest in decreasing carbon dioxide; and the raising of awareness on the extent of microplastic contamination in the food chain have all shown the dedication of the research teams to the ecological and economical welfare of the Philippines. Azanza expressed hopes that this would inspire other Filipino scientists and that NESA would serve as a reminder to “continue to fight for the environment.”

By Eiji Sunagawa

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