By Jasper Emmanuel Y. Arcalas and Cai U. Ordinario
THE country’s tropical climate makes the Philippines an ideal location for growing a number of food crops. This is why many of the country’s farms are planted with rice, vegetables and fruits.
Despite the suitability of Philippine farms for food crops, millions of Filipinos suffer from hunger and are malnourished. According to the World Hunger Report 2018, there are still some 14.2 million undernourished Filipinos and 13.3 million food-insecure Filipinos. Taken together, these account for nearly a third of the country’s population.
Food wasted and food lost due to postharvest handling could reduce the number of the hungry and malnourished in the Philippines based on government data. But minimizing waste and postharvest losses remains a huge challenge for policymakers and citizens, making the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) an uphill battle.
Ending hunger is SDG Goal 2, and the first target of the UN is to ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round. This is being monitored by the government.
This is not the case for SDG Goal 12 on sustainable consumption, which intends to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including postharvest losses by 2030. However, this is not part of the country’s local SDG monitoring.
Food loss, or food waste, refers to the “decrease of food in subsequent stages of the food supply chain intended for human consumption,“ according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which also coauthored the World Hunger Report.
“Food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain, from initial production down to final household consumption,“ a briefer from the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) explained.
“The decrease may be accidental, or intentional, but ultimately leads to less food available for all. Food that gets spilled or spoilt before it reaches its final product or retail stage is called food loss,” it added.
Data on food waste is available from the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech), Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), and the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
However, they are all limited in scope. The PhilMech data focuses only on the waste that results from the harvest to the storage of rice; the FNRI data, food consumption loss per plate—includes rice and other commodities; while the PSA’s Food Demand Survey (FDS) focuses on rice wasted.
Based on PhilMech data, the BusinessMirror estimated that postharvest losses in palay reach 16.4 percent a year. This is composed of losses in harvesting at 2.03 percent; piling, 0.08 percent; threshing, 2.18 percent; drying, 5.86 percent; milling, 5.52 percent; and storage, 0.8 percent.
Last year, total palay lost reached 3.173 million metric tons (MMT) valued at P57.476 billion, based on the computation of the BusinessMirror. This could have fed nearly 19 million Filipinos.
The FNRI defines “food wastage“ as any cooked and raw food items that an individual or family failed to consume, or utilize, due possibly to spoilage, cooking preparation, plate waste and those fed to pets and animals.
Based on the FNRI’s 2015 survey, a Filipino household wastes 43 grams of rice daily. At 22.975 million Filipino households, according to the latest PSA data, the country wastes around 987,952 kg of rice daily.
Based on the computation of the BusinessMirror, the country wastes some P41 million worth of rice daily using the price of the well-milled variety at P42 per kg. Annually, Filipinos waste 360.602 million kg of rice valued at some P15.145 billion, according to the BusinessMirror’s estimates. This could have fed at least 3.281 million Filipinos.
The PSA, the country’s statistical agency, defines wastage as “losses, decrease or destruction of something by use.”
Based on latest PSA data, a Filipino household wastes 1.676 kg of rice annually, translating to a total country loss of 38.507 million kg, valued at P1.617 billion. The figures are significantly lower than the estimates using FNRI’s data.
The FNRI data also showed that Filipinos wasted a total of 8 grams of other food items such as fish, meat, poultry and vegetables. Plate waste for fish and fish products was at 6 grams, while meat and meat products and poultry accounted for 1 gram each.
As for vegetables, Filipinos waste some 5 grams per plate. FNRI data showed green, leafy and yellow vegetables recorded a plate waste of 2 grams per plate, while “other vegetables” was at 3 grams per plate.
Caling Balingbing, International Rice Research Institute’s Senior Associate Scientist for Mechanization and Postharvest, said the country’s palay postharvest losses have been declining since the 1970s as more Filipinos gained access to farm equipment.
“The trend shows that since 1974, the postharvest loss has been declining given the introduction of machines. In 1974 postharvest loss was around 23.5 percent,” Balingbing told the BusinessMirror
“We now have mechanical dryers from PhilRice. PhilMech is disseminating mechanical dryers. PhilRice has flat-bed dryers, which are really good and efficient as they are less laborious,” he added.
Balingbing noted, however, that farmers’ use of modern equipment will not guarantee “absolute elimination” of postharvest losses. This is because, according to Balingbing, some farm machine operators do not use machines at an “optimal level,” resulting in production losses.
“Because of the eagerness to earn more from providing service to other farmers, the operators tend to fast-track the machine work. The operators of combined harvesters are paid in terms of hours per hectare, so they tend to hasten their work,” he said.
“If you work so fast the tendency is that you will not be able to harvest all the crops or some would be wasted along the way,” he added.
Balingbing said the use of ordinary sacks by farmers to store their rice also expands losses. He added that the use of ordinary sacks makes stored crops vulnerable to pests and weather-related problems.
“The Philippines is a tropical country. Crops are exposed to high humidity. Once crops absorb moisture it could lead to issues such as the bukbok [weevil],” he said. “Rice stored in ordinary sacks attracts moisture and insects.”
Balingbing recommended the use of air-tight, hermetic storage that would protect crops against weather-related issues, pests and insects.
“This kind of storage does not anymore require the use of chemicals or pesticides to address pests. Pests die of natural death due to depletion of oxygen,” Balingbing said.
Dr. Arnold S. Juliano, head of the Philippine Rice Research Institute Rice’s Engineering and Mechanization Division, said the government is targeting to reduce postharvest losses by at least 2 percent to a maximum of 14 percent.
Juliano told the BusinessMirror that palay farmers could lose as much as 20 percent of their harvest during the wet season. “Most likely, the use of combined harvesters has reduced the postharvest losses by 2 percent just in the harvesting stage alone.”
Another significant challenge to cutting postharvest losses is farmers’ practice of sun drying rice along road pavements, according to Juliano.
“In fact, that is being banned. But because farmers do not have an area where they can dry their palay, they keep going back to the roadside,” he said.
“There are really huge losses during the wet season. For example, while palay is being sun dried, it would suddenly rain. This would wash off some of the unmilled rice,” Juliano said.
“That is actually the challenge for [the government], how to reduce the postharvest losses. Losses in the drying stage during wet season go up to 9 percent of the total production,” he added.
Juliano said with the introduction of PhilRice-crafted mechanical dryers, they seek to cut losses incurred by farmers by half of the current 5.86-percent average.
Juliano explained that the drying stage of palay is “crucial” as rice is vulnerable to foreign materials and breakage. The drying method used is responsible for the so-called “brokens” in rice varieties. He said PhilRice is currently undertaking a study on the current postharvest losses at the harvesting stage. The agency will also embark on another study on updates on losses at the drying stage of palay.
Juliano said one measure that could help cut the country’s rice waste and losses is promoting the consumption of brown rice. The average milling recovery rate (MRR) for brown rice is higher at 75 percent, 10 percentage points over the 65.4-percent average MRR of white rice. However, the PhilRice official acknowledged that brown rice is more expensive compared to white rice. “Brown rice is supposed to be cheaper because it only underwent dehulling.”
“I think what makes it expensive is the packaging and the lack of market. Brown rice is vacuum packed to prolong its shelf life, which adds to the cost,” he added.
Juliano said that brown rice could be sold at about P40 per kg, fairly comparable to and even cheaper than the current prevailing price of well-milled rice. Expanding the market for brown rice could bring down its price.
“In fact, rice millers would earn more as their production cost would be reduced. At the same time the rice husk could be used for power generation,” he said, adding that rice husks are being bought at P2 per kg.
Agriculture economists noted that the Philippines continues to struggle with the lack of mechanization. In some countries like Malaysia, University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) Center for Food and Agri Business Executive Director Rolando T. Dy said the processes of harvesting, piling and threshing were done mechanically. Losses in handling and transporting palay are avoided.
Dy added that many of the farm machines available today, such as those being used for milling, are new and can easily remove the husk from every grain of palay.
The UA&P economist also said planting one rice variety per locale will make it easier for farmers to maximize milling facilities. While this can be done by the Department of Agriculture (DA) since it is concerned with food production, Dy said this initiative should be implemented by local government units (LGUs). He said LGUs will have a better grasp of the topography, the soil type, and the most suitable variety for their area.
“Planting various rice varieties could result in brokens. Medium, short and long,” Dy said. “In Pidig [Nueva Ecija], milling recovery rate is high because farmers are told what variety they should plant.”
He also cited a need to upgrade facilities. New facilities, particularly for milling, can increase recovery rate to around 71 to 73 percent. But the recovery rate in the country is only around 60 percent.
Senen U. Reyes, UA&P Senior Management Specialist, also said many farmers do not have their own drying facilities. While the government and private sector provide flatbed dryers and drying pavements, the use of these facilities entails costs.
Reyes said with the government buying palay from farmers at only P17 per kg, there is no incentive for them to use these facilities. This is why many farmers would rather dry their palay on roads, even if they are aware of the risks of doing so.
Incentives, he said, should not only be related to the buying price of the National Food Authority (NFA). These perks, Reyes said, should encourage farmers to produce quality grains.
As farmers sell their palay on the basis of weight, Reyes said they no longer care about producing full heads of rice. This allows them to justify their practice of drying palay on roads.
“They do not realize that if rice is dried on the highway, they will incur losses and the grains would break, which could impact on the milling efficiency,” he said.
“Highways are not drying pavements. It’s for the use of vehicles and motorists, not farmers. Farmers may use the roads for transporting their goods,” Reyes added.
The practice of drying palay on roads can be addressed by LGUs. Reyes acknowledged, however, that politicians may be wary of restricting this practice as they may lose votes.
Organizing farmers, Dy said, would help improve the volume and quality of palay produced. Farmer-cooperatives have a better chance of accessing quality mills because of economies of scale.
“Interventions in the value chain at the farming level, the DA can only do so much. Local governments should take the lead because they are the ones responsible for agricultural extension services,” Dy said.
In terms of rice consumption, Dy said data limitations make it difficult to get a more accurate picture. This, he said, is largely due to limitations in data collection related to food consumed outside of the house.
The UA&P economist said changes in food consumption could ease the pressure on the country’s food output. Initiatives to cut rice consumption have been tried in the past. But efforts to discourage people from wasting other food items have yet to be introduced.
Last year, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Food and Agriculture, Sen. Cynthia A. Villar, advocated the ban on offering unli-rice meals. It sought to encourage Filipinos to exercise prudence, but netizens were not receptive to the senator’s recommendation.
In 2013 PhilRice also launched the “Be Riceponsible” campaign, which encourages consumers to stop wasting rice and to eat brown rice, or rice mixed with corn. It also encouraged farmers to plant rice and adopt technologies that would increase yield and income.
The “Be Riceponsible” campaign urged policymakers to “institutionalize the availability and default serving of half cup of rice to prevent wastage and give consumers more options.”
However, despite data showing evidence that households continue to waste other food items, such as meat, fish and vegetables, government efforts related to cutting food waste continued to focus on rice.
Road to zero
While improving the milling recovery rate of rice by a few percentage points will increase the supply of the staple, Reyes said this does not mean that it would be affordable and accessible. This is because farmers sell their crop to traders and millers even before it is harvested.
Food security, according to FAO, is a “multidimensional” concept that can be described by four pillars: accessibility, availability, utilization and stability. FAO said “food security refers to the availability of food, whereas famine and hunger are the consequence of the nonavailability of food, in other words, the results of food insecurity.”
“We can have a buffer stock but it won’t be in the hands of the government. That is the real issue recently. We had stocks but these are not in state warehouses and the buffer wasn’t cheap. The stocks were mostly with the traders,” Reyes said.
Eliminating food waste would not automatically lead to zero hunger, according to Dy. He said hunger has an income component. For a person to avoid hunger, he must be able to have access to affordable food.
Based on the country’s rebased 2012 Consumer Price Index (CPI), food has a weight of around 38 percent. However, Dy said this only accounts for household food consumption. In reality, food consumption could easily take up 46 percent of the budget of Filipino families because food eaten outside accounts for about 8 percent. In this sense, he said the definition of the PSA is not consistent with international standards.
If the country will meet the aim of zero hunger, Reyes said the government needs to implement the “right interventions” and start implementing these measures today. He noted that the aim of attaining the SDGs by 2030 is only 12 years away.
Changing farm policies is a vital measure that would allow the Philippines its commitment to the UN to eliminate hunger, according to Neda officials.
Neda Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment Staff (Anres) Assistant Director Lenard Martin P. Guevarra said the government’s fixation with rice has discouraged the production of affordable and nutritious fruits and vegetables.
“For example, we do not have a comparative advantage in rice but this has been our policy for the longest time. The bulk of the budget is going there so you create an artificial attractiveness to it, that is why farmers prefer rice,” Guevarra told the BusinessMirror.
“But if you look at the per capita consumption of the Philippines in terms of vegetables and fruits, we are actually below the international requirement. It shows that we need to diversify,” he added.
Citing the experience of South Korea and Japan, Guevarra said countries tend to shift their support from cereals to high-value crops to meet the demand of their population. Guevarra noted that consumers usually move away from cereals to high-value crops and other commodities as their incomes improve.
“If we pour the bulk of our investments into commodities in which we do not have comparative advantage just to eliminate imports, it would be costly. It will help reduce imports and achieve sufficiency for a year, but it is hard to maintain and sustain as the Philippines is vulnerable to disasters,” he said.
“The question now is, will the use of public funds on these commodities benefit the public?” he added.
Some Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia attempted to be self-sufficient in rice following the food crisis of 2008, but eventually abandoned the initiative, according to Guevarra. Diversifying to high-value crops, he said, would benefit farmers more as it could improve their income.
What is more important, Neda Anres Director Nieva T. Natural said, is for the Philippines to become “food secure” and not “food sufficient.”
Image credits: AP/Pat Roque