The looming rice crisis

By Henrylito D. Tacio

“Give us this day, our daily bread,” so goes the line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the Philippines, our daily bread is the rice. As the late food epicure Doreen Fernandez wrote: “If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino.”

“One more rice, please.” That call, which rings at dining time in almost all restaurants and kitchenettes all over the country, sums up the eating habits of the typical Filipino to whom eating is a matter of filling up. Since most people can’t fill up with ulam (viand), they fill up with rice.

But Filipinos are not the only people in the world that eat rice. In fact, rice is the principal food for over 60 percent of mankind, according to the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). In Asia alone, about 3 billion people depend on rice to survive.

“Rice is the one thing that truly defines Asia,” said former IRRI Director-General Dr Ronald Cantrell. In China and Korea, where elders recall times when food was hard to come by, some still greet each other with the question, “Have you had your rice today?”

“Many eat as much as 214 kilograms of rice each year (more than half a kilogram a day), providing them with up to 76 percent of their daily calories, and half their iron and zinc,” says Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, a rice plant breeder working at IRRI.

In the 1950s, the specter of mass famine loomed over the Asian region. But thanks to IR8 – so named because it was the eighth crossing done in IRRI – the famine did not happen and brought to the era of Green Revolution.

“The result was a doubling in the supply of rice,” said IRRI in a statement. “Eighty percent of the increase was attributed to improved productivity as well as the development of IR8 and numerous new semi-dwarf varieties that featured faster growth rates, greater resistance to diseases and insects, and a greater responsiveness to fertilizers than existing strains.”

But thanks to the ever growing population, rice production was not able to keep up the demand. With Asia’s population growing by some 56 million a year, domestic demand for rice is expected to top 770 million tons by the year 2025.

“To meet rice demand over the coming years, the yield ceiling of irrigated rice in Asia will need to increase from its late-1980s level of about 10 tons per hectare to around 13 tons per hectare, while average yields will need to reach about 6 tons per hectare, nearly twice the current level. And this will have to be achieved using less land, less water, less labor and fewer chemical inputs, particularly pesticides.”

The link between population and rice production is more obvious in the Philippines. The United Nations demographers in 2002 projected that the population would reach between 75 and 85 million. But the population overshot the high projection and now stands at 89 million. What these figures show “is population growth is faster that anyone expected,” to quote the words of Martha Madison Campbell, founding president of Venture Strategies for Health Development, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, California.

“Rice is the staple food of Filipinos in most parts of the country, although corn also contributes 20 percent or more of caloric intake from cereals in parts of Visayas and Mindanao,” IRRI said. “For the country as a whole, rice accounts for 41 percent of total caloric intake and 31 percent of total protein intake.”

Just recently, the country is having rice shortage. Although Secretary Arthur Yap of the Department of Agriculture said the country is not experiencing it, he asked fast-food chains to offer half portion serving of rice to its customer. Filipinos consumes a total of 11.9 million metric tons of rice annually, most of which is grown domestically.

Although the Philippines is one of the world’s top rice producers, it is also one of the world’s biggest rice importers, being among the top three in 1999 and fifth highest in 2004. With the potential increase in the importation of rice grains by China, the Philippines is now heading for trouble.

“Despite these imports, rice prices for consumers are the highest in developing Asia,” noted the rice almanac published by IRRI. A. Balisacan and M. L. V. Ravago in their paper, ‘The rice problem in the Philippines: Trends, constraints and policy imperatives,’ wrote: “Rice has become more expensive in the Philippines than in other East Asian countries, owing principally to the government’s ill-advised self-sufficiency objective. Liberalizing rice trade enhances the welfare of the poor, especially landless workers and urban consumers, although the short-term cost to the rice sector in terms of reduced incomes and labor displacement may be quite substantial.”

In another paper, D. Dawe contends: “Rice trade liberalization should be a domestic priority, even if it not dictated by international agreements. If the Philippines does substantially liberalize its domestic market to allow more imports, it will be able to source those suppliers reliably without endangering its food security. With more imports, domestic prices will decline substantially and these lower prices will reduce poverty by allowing many poor households to afford food security.”

In a survey done for the World Bank, it was found that eighty-percent of all respondents consumed rice three or more times a day. Sixteen percent said they ate rice twice a day while only one percent said once. Most of those who ate rice thrice a day belonged to the middle class (81 percent) and the rich (79 percent).

The Washington Post described rice farming as “the most important economic activity on the planet.” Dr. Cantrell, however, that most rice farmers are poor. Why is this so? “They are being left behind economically in almost every country where they work, and yet they are ‘supposedly recognized’ as the backbone of not only their nations but their own cultures,” he explained. “They’re considered ignorant and backward by many in the cities and no one wants their job, when really they are the simple, hard working custodians of some of the world’s greatest cultures.”

Rice contains carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. Most of the white rice available in the supermarket is enriched, which means, besides its other assets, it is also supplemented with iron, niacin and thiamine. But most of these added nutrients are lost if rice is washed before cooking or drained afterward. Brown rice, with its healthful bran layers, contains all these nutrients naturally, plus fiber, oil and vitamin E. Low in sodium and fat, with no cholesterol, rice is a boon to weight worriers and those allergic to other grains.

Rice, a member of the grass family and known scientifically as Oryza sativa, has devotees all over the region. India is famous for its pulaus, which is served with all kinds of meat, poultry and seafood. A popular Japanese rice dish is sushi, rice flavored with sweet rice vinegar and wrapped with fish and vegetables. Indonesians set a whole table with rice and assorted goodies that go with the grain; the feast is called rijstafel. The Filipinos are known for its bibingka or rice cake. The Chinese make cakes, noodles and paste from rice.

Writing about rice, Chinese poet Yang Ji penned: “Grain upon grain, / Fresh and delightful as frost, / A dazzling jewel, / To what can I compare this treasure?” — ###


One response to “The looming rice crisis

  1. Pingback: top 10 diseases in the philippines

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