Government must not abandon rice farmers

The President confirmed last week what some experts have been saying all along: That the Philippines will be hard pressed to achieve rice self-sufficiency. This self-sufficiency mantra gained traction during the Arroyo administration, when the Philippines struggled to buy rice from other countries in 2008. Despite having the money to import rice, supply was thin then as the combination of natural disasters and the need to feed their own people forced sellers to hoard their rice supply.

The realization that exporting countries would always prioritize their own citizens, coupled with the ill effects of climate change, prompted the government to reexamine its rice policy. To hike production and ultimately achieve rice self-sufficiency, the government raised its support price for paddy to P17 per kilogram, from P11.50 per kg in 2008. It also rolled out a program dubbed FIELDS (Fertilizer, Irrigation, Education and training farmers and fishermen, Loans, Dryers and other postharvest facilities, and Seeds of the high-yielding, hybrid varieties). FIELDS was a P43.7-billion program, which sought to help farmers increase their output. The government also pumped more money into irrigation and expanded irrigated rice areas.

Rice self-sufficiency means the Philippines would no longer have to depend on imports as the staple required by Filipinos are planted, harvested and purchased locally. The country has shown that it is capable of being self-sufficient in the staple. In 1992 the Philippines had rice surplus and was even able to export 35,101 metric tons (MT), according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). That year the Philippines produced 5.97 million metric tons and needed 5.7 MMT for 65.34 million Filipinos. The PSA noted that per-capita consumption of the staple was only at 87.13 kg or 238.71 grams per day. Rice cost only P10.25 per kg in the National Capital Region in 1992, about 8.7 percent of the minimum wage of P118 for nonagriculture workers.

The former chief of the National Statistical Coordination Board, Dr. Romulo A. Virola, and President Duterte both attributed the decline in Philippine paddy production to the loss of farmlands devoted to rice. Virola said it does not help that the conversion of irrigated lands into subdivisions and golf courses remain unabated. Also, millions of hectares of farmlands lack irrigation, which is crucial to growing a water-loving crop like rice. The government’s aspiration to increase mechanization to cut labor cost and improve productivity remains just that—a dream. Farmlands in Mindanao that are suitable for rice are being used for cash crops. This practice has not changed despite the continuous expansion of the country’s population.

These may have been the reasons the President seems exasperated about the country’s rice-supply situation. The task of fixing it is daunting, but this should not stop the government from trying. Duterte has shown he has the political will to go after criminals and drug addicts. This kind of resolve is needed in pursuing our rice self-sufficiency goal. Otherwise, rice farmers need an alternative livelihood if government is abandoning its self-sufficiency bid.

The government must give a clear signal if it intends to move the country away from producing rice to just importing its entire requirements. Sending out confusing signals would discourage farmers and even cause volatility in the international rice market as the Philippines is a major importer of the staple. Should it make up its mind about abandoning the self-sufficiency goal, the government must have a backup plan in place to help 2.4 million farmers cope with the certain loss of their livelihood.





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