Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Rice self-sufficiency, an essential goal

Posted by butalidnl on 16 April 2008

There is a rice shortage that threatens not only the Philippines, but the whole world. It especially affects the Philippines because rice is our staple food, and also because we don’t produce enough of it to feed ourselves.

This is not merely a result of our high population growth, nor what they say is the low productivity of rice growing in the country; the cause lies deeper still. We have inherited a neoliberal (neo-classical almost) economic thinking that says that open markets are the best solution for everything. So, while rice production did slowly decrease over the years in relation to our rice consumption; our government officials did not only NOT do anything, they even thought that this was absolutely the best policy. The logic seems to go that rice production in the Philippines is not as cost-efficient as in other countries, and that we should plant other things that made more money, export these, and then we can use the money to buy rice and much more from abroad.

I do not agree with the idea that it would be better for the Philippines to import the rice it needs. Rice is too important for us to depend on others for it. Our government should commit itself to a policy of rice self-sufficiency. The country needs to grow enough to feed its people, with a bit of extra for buffer.

We need to be self-sufficient in rice.
We should disregard the neoliberal mantra that keeps us from even trying to be self-sufficient in rice. Rice is so essential to the national diet, even for our literal survival, that we cannot afford to continue being dependent on the international market for it. Look what this misguided policy has led us to: we are now one of the world’s leading importers of rice. And this for a country whose people could not, would not, substitute rice for other sources of carbohydrates. We simply do not feel as if we have eaten a full meal if it is not rice. Even if we have had a lot of spaghetti or siopao or pancit, we would still need rice for the meal. The rest would just be vijand or snacks.

Western European countries were not self-reliant in food crops before World War II. They were mostly dependent on European colonies (or former colonies) for food. During the war, a lot of this food supply was cut for various periods. England suffered a lot, as a result of the German naval raids on their shipping, which cut them off from food supplies in the first years of the war. And of course, Germany and the countries it occupied were cut off from  food imports in turn. After the war, they all resolved that they would never again allow themselves to be dependent on imported food supplies. And this is why they instituted national, and then Europe-wide programs for food self-sufficiency. (the problem we have now is that this has become a huge food surplus in Europe, partly as the result of big subsidies)

The US, which is the country which has been advocating the open market for rice has been doing so mainly in order to keep the Philippines open as a market for US rice and wheat. It does not really apply the neoliberal mantra re food production to itself. The US subsidizes its own farmers to produce food, which it does in quite a large amount.

We can become self-sufficient in rice.
Rice self-sufficiency does not mean that we forego the planting of other crops. Take the cases of Vietnam and Thailand, they were able to diversify their agricultural production while at the same time maintaining and even expanding their rice production. It is not a question of the mix of crops (as in, food crops vs cash crops), but more a question of giving enough resources to the growing of food crops especially rice.

The Philippines still has the potential in growing not only enough rice for the present population; we can readily produce a surplus. There is enough land; even enough land in the hands of farmers. The problem is more in terms of financing, agricultural extension services and post-harvest facilities. A lot of farmers that have land do not have the money to invest in more efficient production. At the same time, rice millers and traders have such a stranglehold on the whole production and distribution process that the farmers are forced to sell their palay at a low price, just to be able to repay debts they made for the inputs etc. from the millers/traders.  This in turn makes it impossible for the farmer to accumulate resources, and also keeps them from increasing their harvest. There is something really wrong when the country’s rice production is held hostage by the monopolistic behaviour of these middle men.

Increasing the NFA buying price for palay is a good first step. However, it should be done more massively – a significant percentage of the harvest should be covered by NFA purchases. In addition, this should be accompanied with a mechanism to provide cheaper inputs e.g. seeds, fertilizers, to the farmers; as well as technical assistance so that farmers learn how to use these inputs optimally.

Rice self-sufficiency helps in all-round economic development.
Producing enough rice for the nation’s needs has benefits beyond keeping people well fed. First of all, it saves the country money; money that would otherwise have gone to other countries, or more precisely to farmers in other countries. The amount of money that is spent to increase rice production generally stays within the Philippines; farmers will spend their increased income on basic goods and to increase production. And the producers of fertilizers etc. will also spend their added incomes in the general area where they are, or at least in the Philippines. This would be good in terms of stimulating the local economy. And the government, even if it would spend money in the effort, would be able to recoup at least a part of the money in terms of increased VAT and other tax collections due to the increased economic activity.

Rice is so basic that if the country is producing enough of it, production of other foodstuffs e.g. vegetables and fruits would also be stimulated. A general improvement of life in the rural areas would mean lesser migration to the urban areas of unskilled labor. It would also mean that many more children of rural families would be able to afford a good education and better health care – leading to better labor supply for a whole range of jobs, both in the urban and rural areas.

The present rice crisis is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the government to make the Philippines self-sufficient in food; an opportunity  to develop the Philippines in balanced way.

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