Rethinking food security

Reyes-Cantos is president of Action for Economic Reforms and convenor of Rice Watch and Action Network. This article came out in BusnessWorld, 14 April 2008, page S1/4 and page S1/5.

People have been knocking their heads off trying to answer the question of the hour:  Is there a rice supply shortage?  The government assures us that there is an adequate supply—the problem is merely high rice prices.   So why would prices rise if there is adequate supply in the first place?  It simply doesn’t fit in with the Economics 11 that I learned from my Professor back then, Solita Monsod.

Whatever it is, the fact is, our domestic rice production has long been insufficient to feed our people.  And we have been making up for our production “shortfall” by importing an average of 1.2 million metric tons the past seven years, or roughly 10 percent of what we consume.  In the past, it was much cheaper to import the shortfall, but in late 2007, there was already an uptick in prices.  Beginning this year though, the price has grown by leaps and bounds and is even projected to hit $1,000 per metric ton within the year, up from $430 per metric ton in the beginning of 2008.

WB, IRRI, Philrice:  “Never Mind the Thin and Skewed Global Market”

While government’s policy pronouncements  carry the rhetoric of achieving 100 percent rice self-sufficiency, the serious drive towards achieving this has been actually tempered by assurances from no less than the World Bank (WB), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and even our very own Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice)—which  asserted that “the world rice market can be trusted.”  The country’s geographic conditions are so unlike that of Thailand and Vietnam where they have the Mekong River which can be readily tapped for irrigation. Ours is a country of islands thereby making it cheaper for us to import.  Government thus chose to relax rather than fight hard for its rice self-sufficiency battle cry.

Rice advocates have been saying that while the international price of rice might be stable, the market is not only thin, it is likewise skewed.   Less than 10 percent of the total rice produced globally is being traded.  Further, 73 to 85 percent of what is being exported is cornered by just six country-producers while those importing 85 percent of what is being offered in the global market is composed of some 35 countries.  Indeed, the simple Econ. 11 that I learned— where prices settle where supply meets demand— cannot be simply applied as this only works in perfectly competitive markets.

The thinness of the global rice market is enough reason for us to work for rice self- sufficiency rather than rely on importation.  Besides, we might not have enough foreign exchange to finance the importation of our staple, side by side with our other import needs like oil and capital equipment.

But of course, government chose to listen to the experts.  And, combined with a host of other incoherent policies with regard to the rice sector, the long lines for the cheap NFA rice starkly tell us that “Houston, we have a problem!”
No one to blame but government

While we should put to task the WB, IRRI and Philrice, and even some of my Professors in the UP School of Economics for the serious misreading of the rice situation, we cannot just let government off the hook for making the huge mistake of listening to these so-called experts.    After all, managing the supply problem through imports is just one side of the equation.  How government ensures that rice is produced efficiently, sustainably and adequately is the other side of the equation.  Putting the lowly rice farmer as well as ecological integrity in the center of this equation is actually something grossly missing in government’s rice policy framework.  Sad to say, government’s rice policy framework is so designed that commercial agribusiness interests primarily benefit at the expense of the viability of small rice farmers as well as the environment.

I will no longer attempt to provide a list of proofs on government’s failure n this regard, this having been the subject of discourse in the past few weeks. Rather, I will propound what the Rice Watch and Action Network thinks should be the important elements in designing our country’s rice policy.

Empowering the Rice Farmer, Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

Often, food security policy choices put the consumer and the producer at loggerheads, with the noisy and no doubt greater-in-number consumers getting favored.  This is very evident in the promotion of the hybrid rice seeds where yields are supposed to be much higher than the traditional technologies that our rice farmers use.  Over the long term, since farmers cannot save the hybrid seeds for the next cropping season, they will end up continuously buying the seeds from private company producers, effectively robbing them of their right to control their seeds.

But productivity need not be sacrificed while ensuring that farmers remain in control of their seeds.  Enough evidence shows that traditional, farmer-bred varieties perform just as well if not better than hybrid rice, using traditional rice farming practices like ensuring even spaces in between rice seedlings and having just one seedling per planting space.  It likewise requires less water compared to what we often picture as a rice field submerged in water most of the time.  Commonly known nowadays as System of Rice Intensification (SRI), this was practiced by our rice farmers many decades ago. I has been abandoned, at is easier throwing the seeds in the middle of the rice field rather than individually planting them in even spaces.  While the SRI method might be labor intensive, the savings the use of organic fertilizers and an integrated pest management approach rather than buying imported chemical inputs and pesticides will result in savings and hence more earnings for farmers. This goes to show that the rise in productivity per hectare  need not be a choice between consumers and farmers’ income.

Providing adequate support services in terms of farm-to-market roads, irrigation, post-harvest facilities, rural credit, crop insurance, among others, should be part and parcel of the strategy to revitalize rural livelihoods and empower the rice farmers.

Ensuring environmental sustainability is critical. Quick-fix solutions like immediately increasing yield by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides eventually lead to the death of the soil.

Urgent Agenda for Congress:  Enact a National Land Use Policy

Coming to terms with how we intend to use our limited land and allocate it over competing claims is as urgent as extending the funding of the agrarian reform program with major reforms on how it should be implemented.  Local governments are allowed to reclassify lands leading to a spate of conversions even of irrigated lands.  This has to be reformed, for there are limits on local government autonomy.  Such limits must be defined within the purview of a national land use act, the enactment of which has been long overdue.  So long as land that is set aside for food production is used judiciously, with adequate irrigation, support services, rural infrastructure and with environmental sustainability in the center of the framework, the demand for food security would be better met.

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