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Rice seen fading as staple with higher incomes

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THE PHILIPPINES’ dependence on rice as its leading staple food is expected to fade as incomes increase and diets are diversified, agriculture experts said.

“We need to increase the income of Filipino households so that we can enable consumers to access more alternatives to rice because other staples may be more expensive,” according to Tamara Palis-Duran, assistant representative for Programmes for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), during the BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum Thursday.

Ms. Palis-Duran said the initiatives of the Department of Agriculture (DA) to introduce other alternatives was a “good start,” but added that it will take a long time for Filipinos to accept new staples other than rice.

“Considering the historical ties of rice to the country, it will really take a long time for us to get accustomed to other alternatives such as corn and sweet potato,” Ms. Palis-Duran said.

“We need to increase their incomes, increase awareness, and introduce some behavioral changes to allow them to diversify to other staples,” she added.

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The Philippine Statistics Authority estimated the average annual family income in 2018 at P313,000, against P268,000 in 2015.

Paul S. Teng, senior fellow and adviser in Food Security at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that lower-income families in the Philippines and across Asia tend to eat more rice.

He said that once policymakers and national governments boost their efforts in increasing household incomes, the diversification of the consumer diet will gain traction.

“They can now start branching away to other staples. Rice is a legacy staple all over Asia. It is so difficult to change legacy food habits because food is such as personal thing,” Dr. Teng said.

Further, Dr. Teng said relative to its neighbors, the Philippines is weak in terms of food security.

“The average Filipino household spends 40% of its income on food compared to 25% in Malaysia and 8% in Singapore. That is really something to ponder,” he said.

According to the DA, rice consumption averages 118.81 kilograms per capita each year, or around 325.5 grams of rice daily.

Shahidur Rashid, South Asia director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said technology is now playing a bigger role in ensuring food security all over the world.

“Agriculture is critically important to ensure food security but we need other systems and institutions in place to make it effective such as technology,” Dr. Rashid said.

FAO’s Ms. Palis-Duran said Filipino farmers usually live in rural communities and efforts must be exerted to provide the assistance needed to help them understand new technology.

Ms. Palis-Duran said some of the support that can be given to farmers include the translation of guides into their languages, explanations of their benefits, and the effect it will have on their farming techniques.

“Extension workers are really needed because they are the ones on the ground. They have direct reach to farmers in the communities. They can help convince farmers who are not technologically adept to make use of technology,” Ms. Palis-Duran said. — Revin Mikhael D. Ochave

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