THE issue, to me, is food security. And, in the Philippine context, this means sufficiency particularly in rice supply. In this line, lawmakers and policy makers as well as those implementing policy should be reviewing and revising policies, agencies, functions, and officials with respect to how they have been contributing to achieving this important objective.
Keep and improve what works, but quickly remove obstructions as well. If, for instance, an agency like the National Food Authority is aggravating rather than improving the situation, and is failing in its objective of promoting and ensuring national food security, then perhaps it has outlived its usefulness and thus must go. The same standard of measure must apply to any policy or official that impacts on food supply.
Allowing the importation of food is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution, to ensuring national food security. Moreover, a policy that relies heavily on free trade in food remains highly susceptible to risks: foreign exchange supply and rate fluctuations; trade disputes; regime changes; and supply disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions or war, famine, or plague, among others.
Data indicate that since the late 1960s, local rice farm yields have actually increased substantially as a result of the cultivation of high-yielding rice varieties, with average productivity reportedly increasing from 1.23 metric tons per hectare in 1961 to 3.59 metric tons per hectare in 2009. The area under irrigation also grew from under 500,000 hectares in the mid-1960s to about 1.5 million hectares in 2009.
But self-sufficiency particularly in rice production is no longer likely, given the rate that we have been losing land to development, seemingly stagnating yields, and given that farmers are now a dying breed. Data from the Philippine Statistical Authority indicate that in second quarter 2018, the harvested area for rice fell to 939,790 hectares, from 947,190 hectares in the quarter in 2017. Yields have also reportedly remained flat in the second quarter at 4.38 tons per hectare.
A more important factor, to me, is that population is about 105 million people now, and it seems that consumption growth has been outpacing harvest growth, resulting in a supply gap. This is where importation plays a more crucial role, and right timing in importation and distribution is key to ensuring supply and price stability.
But, considering the rate of development and the rate of population growth, it is not likely for the trend of supply gaps to disappear or to reverse any time soon. I believe it will remain with us for years to come and may in fact worsen in the future. In 1960, there were only 27 million of us. Today, we are more than 100 million. The rate of population growth from the 1960s to the 1980s was about one million per year, but since the 1990s it has been about 1.6 million annually.
And while in 2013-2017, according to NFA, rice production averaged 12.019 million metric tons annually, consumption averaged at a higher rate of 12.850 million metric tons. The resulting supply gap made it necessary for us to import rice. In this line, should we now abandon rice self-sufficiency? I don’t think so. Should we continue to improve and modernize? Yes, we should. And should we continue to import? I believe we don’t have much choice on this.
Importation is not necessarily bad, or even the lack of self-sufficiency. As noted by economist Gerry Sicat in a column in the Philippine Star, Singapore and Hong Kong do not have rice agriculture, but they have not had serious food price crises, either. They buy their need in food from the world, including all the rice needs of their residents. But, as I noted above, relying more on imports also puts food security at risk.
Weather is the most unpredictable factor in all this, and adverse weather affects not only local harvest but global supply and prices as well. Loss of land to development — with farmlands becoming cities and residences and commercial areas — also significantly affects supply. This is especially true if productivity or yields do not go up. And then, there is the declining number of farmers.
Agriculture expert Rolando Dy believes in the value of farm tourism, quoting Senator Cynthia Villar in his published commentary: “Senator Villar is right: that increasing food production and farm productivity alone cannot move the rural poor out of poverty. Stringing clusters of destinations plus food tours can make farm tourism a success.”
In this line, Dy notes that Tourism Secretary Berna Puyat’s advocacy for “farm tourism as a flagship strategy” is a “sound direction.” Dy also notes that “farm tourism has endless possibilities” locally, given the “varied agro-climatic conditions and food menus in the Philippines.” As an example, he points to an exotic fruit trees farm in Rizal, the carabao center in Nueva Ecija, the crocodile farm in Palawan, and farm resorts and organic farms in Davao.
I second Professor Dy on this, as well as Secretary Puyat and Senator Villar. But I also believe in strengthening agriculture education and convincing more people to get into backyard or even commercial farming, and more conglomerates to match their appetite for real estate development and infrastructure projects with more industries related to food production.
I can understand that many if not most farmers will not wish the same farming life on their children. They want their children to be educated, become professionals, and get out of farming. But the fact of the matter is, farmers’ hands are the hands that feed the nation. Without them, there would be no food. The way to intervene is to help make farming a sustainable and profitable source of income, to convince more people to get into it, not only in retirement but as a way of life.
But fewer people are now studying Agriculture. In Mindanao, for instance, one private school noted that five of their seven colleges “registered decreases in enrollment” this year. All these colleges offer programs which compete with state schools in the region that offer free tuition. Among the programs that suffered from a big decline in enrollees are Agriculture (down 32%) and Education (down 57%). This, I believe, is a trend that should be reversed. Or else, we will really be in trouble.
One database on world population rankings places us at no. 12, with an estimated population of about 115 million people as of 2018. It also ranks us as no. 2 in Southeast Asia, second only to Indonesia’s 262 million. With these many mouths to feed, we need to significantly boost agricultural production. Otherwise, supply gaps and price hikes will always be a problem and can even worsen.
We cannot always expect the rest of the world to have food to sell to us, or that we will always have money to buy food from abroad. In times of bad weather, war, famine, or even trade disputes, global food can be in short supply. We should be able to fend for ourselves. But how can we do that if we continue to lose farms and farmers?
Technology can do only so much in improving farm productivity and efficiency. Food production will always need farmlands and farmers. To ensure food security, we need long-term solutions that focus on having more farms and farmers producing more food in line with sustainable development.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council