Is the rice industry finally on the rise?

Michael Makabenta AlunanWE have witnessed the rise and fall of the rice industry, but can the Duterte administration finally attain self-sufficiency by 2019, as it claims, similar to how all its predecessors have vowed only to fail and succumb to the temptations of conveniently importing huge volumes of the staple?

Should the Philippines pursue rice self-sufficiency at all costs? Or must it focus, instead, on assuring food security and higher incomes for farmers that could bail them out of their moribund state of poverty?

Whatever is the right strategy, these were among the issues discussed at the recent Usapang Sakahan forum organized by our organization, the Philippine Agricultural Journalists Inc., in partnership with Inang Lupa Movement, at the Sangkalan Restaurant in Quezon City.

“RIPE” for takeoff? Department of Agriculture (DA) Director Leo P. Cañeda discussed Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol’s Rice Industry Productivity Enhancement (RIPE) program, claiming the situation is now ripe for a takeoff for the Philippines to attain self-sufficiency.

Cañeda, as former, regional executive director for Eastern Visayas, was able to transform Region 8 from a rice-deficit region to a self-sufficient producer, even against the odds with the region often ravaged by typhoons.

The DA aims to increase palay productionfrom the current 18.150 million metric tons (MMT) to self-sufficiency at 21.6 million MMT by 2019. This it aims to achieve through a combination of irrigated hectarage and hybrid rice varieties to boost yields, and through mechanization and modern and appropriate postharvest facilities to reduce spoilage and wastage, with sun-drying on concrete roads along highways alone accounting for as much as 25 percent of postharvest losses. Milling and other losses from threshing, handling, etc., account for another 15 percent.  The government is increasing the infrastructure spending for irrigation to P21.53 billlion in 2018, up from the current ceiling of P7.15 billion. Small irrigation facilities will also be built in ideal rain-fed areas.

Just to emphasize the importance of irrigation, it is said that before other inputs are to be considered, agriculture needs No. 1, water; No. 2, water; and No. 3, water. Unlike rain-fed ricelands that produce only one crop a year, irrigated lands produce two or three crops a year. But out of the 4.656 million hectares in total rice lands, only 331,157 hectares so far are irrigated areas planted to hybrid rice.

The current national average rice yield is 3.90 MT per hectare, which is below the average hybrid rice yield of 5.7 MT per hectare. There are even hybrid yields of 8 to 12 MT per hectare per crop. The DA aims to increase the national average yield to 4.64 MT per hectare by 2019, Cañeda says.

Swiped when ripe? But when things get (fruitful) ripe, they get swiped [Kung namumunga, pinupukol]. Whether this is a Filipino cultural trait or not, criticisms are normal in a democracy, and should be welcomed as a feedback mechanism to help refine ideas and programs. Otherwise, aversion to criticisms can lead to complacency and hubris, whereby the myopic intellectual rust starts corroding.

Former Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar of Inang Lupa said he wishes “self-sufficiency is attained, but it should not be done at all costs. There must be actual numerical targets, so we can ascertain and measure exactly if our goals are attainable and not just sweeping general statements. There are also over 1.3 million hectares of irrigable flat lands that are not yet being done.”

On competitiveness, Dar said we can never be competitive, as our production costs are as much as P11 to P12 per kilo, in contrast to Vietnam’s P6 to P7 per kilo, and Thailand’s P9 per kilo, as both enjoy vast flat lands naturally irrigated at virtually no cost by the huge Mekong River. Our focus must, therefore, be on food security and higher farmer incomes and not on self-sufficiency alone.

Jesse Las Marias, an economist and agriculture practitioner, who was one of the forum audience, says “with better technologies and farming systems like the System of Rice Intensification [SRI] system, we can bring down costs of production to P4 to P6 per kilo, which are already competitive with our neighbors.” How it works deserves a separate discussion.

Imports distorting markets anew? Joji Co, president of the Philippine Confederation of Grains Associations, said it is difficult for them to plan long term because, while the government aims to go for massive local production and self-sufficiency, we hear reports that the National Food Authority (NFA) allowed the importation of 805,000 metric tons, which will arrive not later than February 28, 2017. The problem here is that this importation privilege is open to almost anybody, including the rice stakeholders. “And we would not know if those granted import permits will actually double what is allowed,” he added.

Co says the regular huge imports force them to slow down on their procurement from rice farmers, which dampen farm prices. Moreover, rice millers could not also plan effectively to upgrade and replace their old rice mills, which are already 40 to 50 years old and have very low grains-recovery rates of only 60 percent, against other countries hitting almost 70 percent. He said the government must invest massively in rice driers, as drying the palay on concrete roads does not only expose the grains to the rains, but they are also consumed by birds, insects and rats. Whether you save by cutting down on wastage either through mechanized driers, better threshers or upgraded rice mills, a mere 10-percent savings can already produce an additional 2 million tons of rice from wastage of palay processing.

For the rice-milling industry to improve its production efficiencies, Co says all they are asking is for the government not really to finance them fully, but just to subsidize the high-interest cost increments of banks and many financing programs.

Again, they are faced with the dilemma of whether they must invest in capital outlays for long term, or join, as well, the more convenient business of importing rice, as all it takes is a small office and a secretary, and you can do international trading and just outsource the logistical needs from trucking to warehousing, etc.

Also present as a speaker at the forum was Gawad Saka awardee farmer Nemesio Concepcion, an outstanding rice farmer from Central Luzon. Whether we achieve self-sufficiency, or go through the usual ruce and fall, either way there is some basis and a grain of truth.


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