by Aurora Regalado, Hazel Tanchuling, Jessica Reyes-Cantos

Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 2, 2011


WE HAVEN’T really gotten over the impact of the 2008 food crisis, and yet another one is unfolding. Global food prices have hit record levels, largely driven by soaring prices of cereals, meat and dairy products. (See sidebar.)

Crude prices have also surged amid the conflict in North Africa and protests in the Middle East.

Rising fuel costs mean higher prices of essential commodities, transport and, of course, food.

The emerging food crisis is not immediately attributable to rice but more to wheat and sugar. Buffer rice stocks from 2009 to 2010 rose significantly in many countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, showing that rice security was of utmost concern to the region. (See table.)

Although rice may not have generally driven the increase in food prices now, supply is continually threatened by climate change and by faulty governance.

The most immediate impact of rising food and fuel prices is pushing more Filipinos into hunger and poverty.

Women hardest hit

The poor, especially women are hardest hit. Skipping meals or shifting to low-quality food is the most common coping mechanism for the poor. Making ends meet becomes more difficult because of increasing food prices.

Take the case of Mang Ramon, 45, a tricycle driver in Antipolo City with three children. On a good day, he earns P150 to P200 a day. With a kilo of rice now costing P30 (the cheapest) and small galunggong (formerly the poor man’s fish; now it’s tilapia) at P110 a kilo, it’s becoming harder to budget his meager income.

Even the prices of pan de sal and instant noodles have gone up. The effect of smaller food intake and low-quality food is increased malnutrition and other host of ailments.

The National Statistical Coordination Board reported last year that there had been no reduction in poverty incidence from 33 percent in 2006.

With rising fuel and food prices and out-of-job Filipino workers from North Africa and the Middle East, we can expect a spike in poverty incidence unless major economic boosters happen.

Spending audit

No doubt, huge sums of money have been poured into agriculture, from infrastructure like irrigation to subsidies like seeds and fertilizers.

However, productivity did not significantly improve. Rather than going into farms and support for farmers, large amounts of money went into the pockets of bureaucrats and their partner agriculture supplier-contractors. Stories like rain-fed irrigation systems, should be brought out in the open and active citizens’ watch over important spending of public funds should be encouraged.

Invest in agriculture

The call to invest in food production in particular, and agriculture in general, remains viable in the Philippines when most Filipinos still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for food and income.

One area that needs critical attention is boosting agricultural productivity. Rice yield in the country is about 3.6 tons per hectare in 2010. To achieve rice self-sufficiency by 2013, the country must achieve a yield of at least 5 tons per hectare.


The Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) has been actively advocating a strong and effective government intervention aimed at increasing rice output without sacrificing the environment.

These include but not limited to tenure reforms, concrete farm-to-market roads, small irrigation development, post-harvest improvement, greater efficiency in product markets, effective access to financial services, crop insurance, enhancing capability of small farmer, investing in appropriate science and technology and, yes, price support at the farm gate (see for more details).

Import policies

It is also important to seriously address agricultural marketing/trade issues (e.g. prices, importation policies). It is a given that one of the biggest problems of small farmers is direct access to consumer markets.

Consumer markets are controlled by middlemen. In the case of rice, there are about seven to eight channels of delivery before rice reaches the consumers. At the retail level, the price of rice will be double that of the farm-gate price of palay (unhusked rice).

Ka Jimmy Tadeo, president of the National Rice Farmers’ Council, is pushing for the increased volume of palay bought by the National Food Authority (NFA). He said that if the NFA maintained its palay buying price of P17 per kilo and increased its capacity to buy, the farmers would become bankable in the long-term.

Such a proposal is not without basis. By virtue of government’s announcement to increase palay prices from P11 to P17 in 2009, farmers did quick production turnaround to make sure they can cash in on the high palay buying price. That simple but very powerful signal was enough motivation for farmers to plant rice.

Climate change

Climate is critical to food production. Various climatic conditions (e.g. prolonged droughts, floods and infestation) have seriously affected food production, contributing to the food crisis in 2008 and the current rise in food prices.

Various organizations, including R1, stress the need for sustainable approaches to address climate change and mitigate its adverse impact. The measures include multicropping rather than a single crop approach; motivating farmers to provide life-saving irrigation to the crop, wherever possible, during long dry spells; improving soil fertility; balanced use of plant nutrients along with an integrated plant-management system; and use of biofertilizer and effective control of pests and diseases by emphasizing the need-based application of pesticides or complete management using biopesticides.

Some quarters, including the Department of Agriculture’s Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice), are open to exploring other sources of carbohydrates to meet the caloric needs of the population. There are other easy-to-produce and cheaper sources like corn, bananas, cassava and other root crops.

Sustainable farming

American scholars like John Cavanagh and Robin Broad joined brown-rice advocates as the rice is healthier and more filling. These proposals would entail though, a shift in the population’s consumption pattern to reduce per capita demand for rice. These should find space in the crafting of a rice security or self-sufficiency policy as the agriculture sector continues to face major challenges.

In the long-term, it is important to address the food and agricultural system being adopted and implemented by the country. The neoliberal framework for food and agriculture, which relies heavily on monocultures, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, bioengineered high-yielding varieties that the Philippines has subscribed to for several decades, definitely did not work.

Various studies show that the commercial-industrial technologies being applied in agriculture today have resulted in severe environmental consequences, including loss of topsoil, decrease in soil fertility, surface and ground water contamination, and loss of genetic diversity.

Food First (Institute for Food and Development Policy) reported that “a survey of recent studies comparing the productivity of organic practices to conventional agriculture shows many benefits of shifting to sustainable agricultural methods.”

A new UN Report (
lish/issues/food/annual.htm) also said that by using ecological methods, small-scale farmers can double their production in 10 years.

As the Special Rapporteur on the right to food aptly said, “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

(Aurora Regalado and Jessica Reyes-Cantos are co-convenors and Hazel Tanchuling is the secretariat coordinator of the Rice Watch and Action Network [R1], a group pursuing policy changes in rice trade and farming systems, and promoting sustainable agriculture.)






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