As rice farmers groan, rice company holds a gala

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A CHEF prepares a dish for the gala dinner marking the launch of Renucci Rice’s Dalisay variety on Sept. 11 at the Hyatt Grand Ballroom.

AN OFT-REPEATED legend about Queen Marie Antoinette of France is that when she was told that the people had no bread, she replied, “Then let them eat cake.” The phrase has gone down in history as a marker of the indifference that the wealthy give to the poor.

As rice farmers suffer from low farmgate prices they say is caused by the Rice Tarrification Law passed earlier this year, Renucci Rice, a brand of Chen Yi Agriventures, threw a lavish rice-themed dinner in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt on Sept. 11 to launch its Dalisay variety. The dinner was prepared by David Senia, a famed Singapore-based chef who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, and what’s more, during a stint in Japan, has prepared dinner for the Emperor of Japan. It was attended by the present Secretary of Agriculture, William Dar, along with some of Manila’s finest, and a few names of questionable reputation.

To be fair to all parties however, including Marie Antoinette, there was no record of the queen having said “Let them eat cake” during a bread crisis. The quote may have been made up or misattributed by her enemies: an earlier ancestor, Queen Marie Therese, wife of Louis XIV, may have been the source of the quote. In fact, Marie Antoinette was said to have written during the time of the bread crisis when she is supposed to have uttered the phrase, “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”

Again, to be fair this time to the Renucci couple, Patrick and Rachel, they gave up their glamorous lives in Paris to establish Renucci in the Philippines after the devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda five years ago.

“We lived this amazing life in Paris. We partied with our friends, we drank the best of French wines, we skied in the Alps,” said Ms. Renucci in a speech. “Typhoon Yolanda happened and it shook us to the core. We said that this overflowing love we had for each other, we need to give it all back. Give it back to the province of Leyte, to the survivors of Yolanda, to the rice farmers of Leyte, but most especially, to the people of the Philippines.

“We have produced the best-tasting rice in the Philippines, and we have built the most technologically advanced rice processing complex in Southeast Asia, in Leyte.” (This complex is described in detail in this story from BusinessWorld:

Mr. Renucci said that Renucci Rice exists as a sustainable business, resting on three points: one, taking care of the Earth by “helping the farmers, to use only the chemicals that they need,” and making it profitable, “otherwise, you are an NGO.”

The final point, of course, is to help the farmers, which Renucci does with its Renucci Partnership Program. Summarized, it is giving loans for seeds to farmers at 0% interest, and providing the equipment at low-interest leases. The Renucci couple calculates that they have helped more than 4,000 farmers to increase their income by 10 times.

The dinner, by this metric, then became not a throwaway excess, but a celebration of prosperity. Marinated Tuna Tartare with egg yolk cream, ikura, and rice with Filipino spices was served as an appetizer, along with a Filipino sea bass rouille with Provencal crispy risotto, fennel salad, and Bouillabaisse sauce. For the main course, there was a Chinese-style crispy suckling pig with Renucci rice Yaki Nasu Miso, Bok Choy, and Red Wine fusion jus. Dessert was Renucci Sticky Rice, Mango Cremeux, and a rice sorbet.

Mr. Dar, in an interview with BusinessWorld, defended the birth pains of the Rice Tarrification Law. Farmers now complain of low farmgate prices of palay, pegged below P20 pesos last month, which significantly affects their income. To assuage this, the government, according to Mr. Dar, is to provide loans of P15,000 at 0% interest, payable in eight years. As well, taxes derived from the rice tariffs will be earmarked for use for the Rice Competitiveness Endowment Fund, which would help farmers to increase their yield via modernizing processes in planting and processing.

Mr. Dar said about small farmers, “They would be the very focus of this program, Once they group themselves into associations, or cooperatives, then they are the ones to receive the machines, the driers — whatever is under the mechanization program.” Mr. Dar predicts that the first group will benefit by the planting season in November.

Ms. Renucci, meanwhile, said, “If people replicated our model, and help the farmers increase their yield, we would get very good quality palay, uplift the farmers from poverty, and… invested in the technology, we could produce rice as good as Japanese and Thai rice.” — Joseph L. Garcia