By Henrylito D. Tacio
Rice self-sufficiency is national security, so goes a saying. This statement comes to mind as the country is again facing rice shortage similar to the 1995 crisis when the government failed to anticipate a shortfall in domestic production.
Although Secretary Arthur Yap of the Department of Agriculture denied the country is experiencing rice shortage, he asked fast-food McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and local brand Jolibee Foods to offer half portion serving of rice to its customers.
The National Food Authority (NFA), which sells subsidized rice in some 22,000 selected outlets nationwide, has downplayed a food crisis and made assurances that there will be a steady supply of cheap rice in the market.
However, Senator Manuel Roxas III, chairman of the Senate committee on trade and commerce, admitted the country is facing at least 2.1 million metric tons of rice deficit, or equivalent to two months supply of the staple. This means the country’s supply of rice will last only until October. Filipinos consumes a total of 11.9 million metric tons of rice annually, most of which is grown domestically.
As a result of rice shortage, prices are expected to rise. Already, the average retail price of rice is 72 US cents a kilo, from 60 US cents in 2007. And there is no sign that prices are going to stabilize soon, as global prices continue to soar. “A fast-unfolding food shortage is engulfing the entire world, driving food prices to record highs,” commented Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.
In the Philippines, rice is the staple food. 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).
“Rice is an extremely sensitive political commodity. There is no question a big surge in the staple’s price is bound to spur social unrest and political instability,” warned Senator Loren Legarda, the chair of the Senate economic affairs committee.
Experts cite several reasons why the Philippines has not achieved rice self-sufficiency from the 1870s to the present. Among these were rice pests and diseases, unstable weather, political instability, weak governance, Asian financial crisis, peso devaluation, and peace and order problems in rice-growing areas.
But what these experts fail to mention is the burgeoning population of the country. “Our problem is population,” wrote Antonio C. Abaya in his widely-read newspaper column. “We are having more children faster than we can grow the food to feed them.”
Abaya compared the Philippines to that of Thailand as a case in point. “In the 1970s, the Philippines and Thailand had about the same population size, about 45 million. But because Thailand had an active and comprehensive population management program, and the Philippines did not, in 2007 there were 89 million Filipinos, but only 65 million Thais.”
In his column, Abaya reiterated, “That surplus of 24 million more mouths to feed encapsulates the failure of this country. By all yardsticks of common sense, it is easier to feed, house, clothe, educate and find jobs for 65 million people than for 89 million.”
“Demand for food is growing fast,” said Dr. Arsenio Balisacan, former agriculture secretary and currently professor of economics at the University of the Philippines, “not because our incomes are growing — our incomes have not been growing as fast as our neighbors, so we have not shifted to other crops – but because our population is growing at 2.3 percent a year. That’s almost two million additional mouths to feed every year.”
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. The country imports most of rice needs from Thailand and Vietnam. Unlike the Philippines, both countries “are predominantly Buddhist and have no religious hang-ups about the use of artificial methods of birth control,” Abaya commented.
Meanwhile, a politics of food scarcity is emerging around the world. “Most fundamentally, it involves the restriction of grain exports by countries that want to check the rise in their domestic food prices,” explained Brown. In Asia, among the countries that restrict rice exports include Vietnam and Cambodia. “These export restrictions simply drive prices higher in the world market,” he said.
Although the Philippines imports rice through the NFA, “rice prices for consumers are the highest in developing Asia,” noted the rice almanac published by IRRI. Balisacan and M. L. V. Ravago in their collaborative 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.”
If the price of rice will continue to rise and should there be really rice shortage soon, will Filipinos turn to eating corn and other staples? As the late food epicure Doreen Fernandez wrote: “If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino.” — ###