F&B World - - CONTENTS - Text by ERIC NI­COLE SALTA Pho­tos by PAT MA­TEO

Kiko Torno ad­dresses the world's over­fish­ing is­sues with a sus­tain­able farm in Ne­gros

On a rainy June night, sea bass, snails, and soft- shell crabs all star in a col­lec­tion where the taste does the talk­ing. Kiko Torno, whose wispy sil­ver locks con­ceal his rich, mas­ter­ful un­der­stand­ing of sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture, looks a lit­tle ner­vous even if he’s done this sev­eral times be­fore.

A sip of Aper­i­tivo Loka and Prosecco con­cocted by mixol­o­gist Mikey Presa, how­ever, is all it takes for Torno to muster the courage and trans­form the in­ti­mate Pond- to- Plate gath­er­ing at Grace Park Res­tau­rant into an artis­tic com­mon ground with his acute, bat­tlescarred philoso­phies. Re­spond­ing to the pub­lic’s in­com­pre­hen­sion of sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture’s vi­a­bil­ity and pos­i­tive ef­fects on the en­vi­ron­ment, Torno’s mono­logue comes with a com­posed ferocity that re­fuses to sur­ren­der his place in the in­dus­try.

“Un­for­tu­nately it’s the up­per class that ap­pre­ci­ates [ sus­tain­able seafood] be­cause it comes with cost. That’s why I’m do­ing the mod­icums to ed­u­cate how Filipinos should en­joy the nat­u­ral taste. Hav­ing Grace Park, Hey Hand­some, and An­to­nio’s Restau­rants as clients showed me the scarcity of the sup­ply.”

These ed­u­ca­tional seafood soirees are where he chan­nels his ad­vo­ca­cies of aware­ness to a small but em­pow­ered com­mu­nity. That same night, Mar­garita Forés, a long­time be­liever of Torno’s “seafood pur­veyor” sta­tus, stood be­side him as he ad­dressed the wait­staff hours be­fore the se­lected guests, in­clud­ing a cou­ple from one of the most exclusive re­sorts in the coun­try, ar­rived. One can get sucked in by Torno’s char­ac­ter piece as he mo­bi­lizes all his re­sources to buck those that deny or fail to un­der­stand the fu­ture of aqua­cul­ture, but his nar­ra­tive is made even more rel­e­vant by a per­co­lat­ing dis­plea­sure at in­jus­tice.

“Ano’ng meron sa Pilip­inas na bakit walang dan­gal ang mga farm­ers? ’ Yun ’ yung is­sue,” says the former ad­ver­tis­ing stal­wart, rais­ing ques­tions about the dy­nam­ics of the in­dus­try. “Walang rumere­speto sa mga farm­ers. Pag­dat­ing ng mga farm­ers sa mga restau­rants, taga kaa­gad ang presyo. It’s not sus­tain­able for the farm­ers. Sabi ko, ‘ I think we can do some­thing.’”


A few weeks prior to his mod­icum, Torno walked us through 7Hectares, his farm in Sar­avia ( now re­named E. B. Ma­ga­lona) just north of Ba­colod, Ne­gros Oc­ci­den­tal where he nur­tures Asian sea bass or Aus­tralian bar­ra­mundi ( apa­hap), red snap­pers ( maya- maya), mud crabs ( al­i­mango), and soft- shell crabs in 10 one- me­ter deep ponds.

“Right now, I’m also re­search­ing about slip­per oys­ters and lo­cal scal­lops. Ev­ery­thing is nat­u­rally fed and re­spon­si­bly grown,” he says. “Back in the ’ 70s, ’ 80s, Ne­gros was one of the top pro­duc­ers of prawns. But the own­ers f**** d it up big time. Let’s say the pop­u­la­tion of one pond can only hold 5,000, they’d flood it with 150,000. We were ex­port­ing but now the ecosys­tem is bro­ken. Even now it’s hard to grow prawns.”

It’s a mis­take Torno is care­ful not to repli­cate. Many farm­ers and en­trepreneurs driven by a need to make a dif­fer­ence have churned out thought­ful busi­nesses with an en­ter­pris­ing vi­sion— look at Earth­beat Farms, Holy Carabao, and GK En­chanted Farm— and yet there’s also some­thing re­mark­ably dis­tinct about Torno’s ap­proach that sets it apart from its peers.

“You have to study the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment,” he says of what con­sti­tutes sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture, “be­cause once you have un­der­stood your ecosys­tem, that’s when you ad­just what you can healthily grow in your area. Some­times oth­ers use chem­i­cals. They will vi­o­late the en­vi­ron­ment to grow what they want.”

Torno has been run­ning his farm for three years with a non- lin­ear ex­plo­ration of the com­plex­i­ties be­hind sus­tain­abil­ity. Over the course of his in­stall­ments, Torno threaded through the sci­ence of seafood, im­mersed him­self in bi­ol­ogy re­search, looked into the ca­pac­ity of how much he can grow, and suf­fered heavy losses when ex­cru­ci­at­ing heat in Visayas two years ago led to a drop in dis­solved oxy­gen, wip­ing out nearly all of his crops. “They’re very del­i­cate,” he says. “The sur­vival rate is low. If I throw in 1,000, ka­pag hindi bi­nan­tayan nang maayos, lal­abas 200 lang.”


With 10 ponds that carry a va­ri­ety of crops, the ar­chi­tec­ture here tells the story of a Ne­gros trans­plant’s anti- aris­to­cratic, for­ward­think­ing vi­sion. It’s a case study in sus­tain­abil­ity founded on three philoso­phies: nat­u­ral feed­ing, re­spon­si­ble growth, and cor­rect mar­ket trade size. There is a work­ing ecosys­tem Torno built from scratch to mimic his crops’ nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. On the farm, chick­ens roam. A lone cow looks on lazily. And there are huts where two of his staff, Bib­ing, 52, and Bak­bak, 29, sta­tion them­selves. Part of the plea­sure of 7Hectares is the way each small cog’s role in the farm emerges grad­u­ally.

To start, dried chicken ma­nure is packed in sacks, which they call tea bags, and then left in the dry ponds be­fore let­ting the wa­ter flow back in. Torno lets the bags sit there for two weeks to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages seaweed and al­gae cul­ture, both act­ing as food and sanc­tu­ary for their tilapia liv­ing next to the water­way, to flour­ish. These tilapias are then fed to the car­niv­o­rous sea bass and snap­pers, en­sur­ing an all- nat­u­ral diet and es­chew­ing ar­ti­fi­cial feeds. Crabs, mean­while, de­spite co- habi­tat­ing with these fish, feed on an­nelids or

worms. In one pond, the stock­ing den­sity for fish is 1,500. For crabs, it’s 600. “We need to re­spect that so they won’t eat each other,” ex­plains Torno.

Spawn­ing sea­son runs from De­cem­ber to April, but there’s no ques­tion about the frailty of the process: Hatch­lings are cared for in net­ted bam­boo sanc­tu­ar­ies called nurs­eries ( or sub­strates for crabs) for three weeks to in­crease sur­vival rate. Dur­ing this grow- out stage, Bib­ing and Bak­bak con­tinue the sort­ing and se­lec­tive process. Once they reach the right size, they are then trans­ferred into the ponds.

“The beauty of aqua­cul­ture is it’s not sub­jected to sea­sons. I can stock as much as I can to have a con­sis­tent sup­ply through­out the year. That’s why our next thrust is to have our own hatch­ery. And then we can do retail.”

None of Torno’s de­ci­sions are driven by com­mer­cial mo­tives. Rather, he has al­ways acted out of con­vic­tion. It’s hard not to ad­mire his de­ter­mi­na­tion and while his dis­dain for too much com­mer­cial­ism is ap­par­ent— he only sells to a hand­ful of clients and only at 500 grams and above— it’s off­set by an in­tegrity that far ex­ceeds that of any ma­jor fish pro­ducer, so much so that he has earned the re­spect of renowned chefs Forés, Tony­boy Es­calante, and Nicco San­tos. And the most in­ter­est­ing thing about Torno is that he’s turned the buy­ing process on its head. In­stead of com­pet­ing with large- scale fish farms and try­ing to find a niche, he cre­ated his own space in the mar­ket. “Grace Park wants one- kilo sizes, An­to­nio’s wants 500 to 600 grams, Hey Hand­some also wants a par­tic­u­lar size. I can con­sis­tently sup­ply them with con­sis­tent sizes be­cause it’s reg­u­lated. I can con­trol that with­out vi­o­lat­ing any nat­u­ral cy­cle.”

But re­gard­less of Torno’s clean in­ten­tions, some non- be­liev­ers will find ways to dis­miss pond- raised crops— a feisty com­ment on Forés’s apa­hap In­sta­gram post (“No no no to fish farm­ing”) is a prime ex­am­ple. The de­bate be­tween wild- caught and farm- raised seafood is an ex­haus­tive, im­pas­sioned one. The World Bank re­port Fish to 2030: Prospects for Fish­eries and Aqua­cul­ture es­ti­mates that in 2030, 62 per­cent of seafood for con­sump­tion will come from fish farms to meet in­creas­ing de­mands as well as ad­dress over­fish­ing’s break­ing point. That said, while aqua­cul­ture holds op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove food se­cu­rity and gen­er­ate liveli­hood, it’s not the so­lu­tion to over­fish­ing un­less strin­gent sus­tain­able and re­spon­si­ble prac­tices are put in place.


In­ter­est in toxin con­tam­i­na­tion from both sides is in­escapable: Wild- caught fish like tuna, sword­fish, and mack­erel con­tain high lev­els of mer­cury, while farmed fish can have PCB ( poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyl)

“If you ask me [whether sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture is go­ing to be a big part of Philip­pine seafood], it has to. But there’s a big chance it won’t hap­pen be­cause it needs pa­tience,” says

Kiko Torno.

con­tam­i­na­tion— al­though a 2004 study on farmed sal­mon found that PCB lev­els be­tween farmed and wild fish are sim­i­lar. Rapid species pro­duc­tion could also cause ex­ten­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, as in the case of Ne­gros’ prawn in­dus­try back in the day. The same World Bank re­port cites aqua­cul­ture prac­tices that have posed prob­lems for its prom­ise such as the “dis­ease out­breaks in shrimp aqua­cul­ture in China, Thai­land, and Viet­nam, and in sal­mon farm­ing in Chile.”

“We con­tinue to see ex­ces­sive and ir­re­spon­si­ble har­vest­ing in cap­ture fish­eries, and in aqua­cul­ture, dis­ease out­breaks, among other things, have heav­ily im­pacted pro­duc­tion,” says Juer­gen Voegele, direc­tor of Agri­cul­ture and En­vi­ron­men­tal Ser­vices, in the re­port. “There is a ma­jor op­por­tu­nity for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries that are pre­pared to in­vest in bet­ter fish­eries man­age­ment and en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture.”

Yet no mat­ter the dif­fi­culty of sus­tain­abil­ity, farm­ers like Torno are in it for the long haul not only be­cause that is the di­rec­tion fish pro­duc­tion should head, but also be­cause his vi­sion is much too ab­sorb­ing, his re­solve much too im­plicit for this to not ever work.

“If you ask me [ whether sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture is go­ing to be a big part of Philip­pine seafood], it has to. But there’s a big chance it won’t hap­pen be­cause it needs pa­tience,” he says. “For aqua­cul­tur­ists, there is po­ten­tial but I’m not sure if the gov­ern­ment has the ca­pac­ity to sus­tain or help it.”

But like the restau­ra­teurs and chefs Torno is cur­rently work­ing with, many would agree that sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture pro­vides con­sumers some­thing tra­di­tional fish­ing can­not: trace­abil­ity. Like cof­fee. “You get to know where the pro­duce is sourced from, how it’s grown. Aqua­cul­tur­ists can show you the el­e­ments of how the al­gae is grown, why al­gae is be­ing grown, the use of poul­try, their value and role in the en­vi­ron­ment.” And more im­por­tantly, it brings a se­lect au­di­ence into the dis­cus­sion and a net­work of like- minded in­di­vid­u­als into a sys­tem they may not have known oth­er­wise. The more peo­ple learn about sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture, the more vi­able the fu­ture of fish farm­ing is in the Philip­pines.

So while Torno may still be on an up­hill climb with his crops, what gives his philoso­phies their im­pact is the way they are tied with his iden­tity and con­vic­tion. He is in­volved in ev­ery step of the way and justly so, con­sid­er­ing that his rep­u­ta­tion is al­ways at stake ev­ery time he puts him­self, his farm, and the peo­ple of Ne­gros in front of a dis­cern­ing au­di­ence. Sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture may not be where it’s sup­posed to be yet, but at its heart, it does value one thing, says Torno. “There are no short­cuts to do­ing the right thing.” Yes, even when it comes to sip­ping sig­na­ture spirits.

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