• Was the dream of rice self-sufficiency delusional?

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    Marlen V. Ronquillo

    The dream of Filipino farmers to produce enough rice for the country’s needs with a little buffer on the side, ended, borrowing from T. S. Eliot, “not with a bang but with a whimper.” The government has decided to end the tool that regulates the volume of imported rice, called the quantitative restriction or QR. The farmers, as usual, lost, which has been our fate from time immemorial.

    Farmers equals losers. Then, there is always the ton of salt rubbed on our open wounds after every loss. Which indeed was rubbed on our already broken spirits after the decision to end the QR.

    Apologists for the lifting of the QR, masquerading as “experts,” issued damning post-mortems that said that the efforts to produce enough rice for the country’s needs were both delusional and harmful. This was the gist of the apologia: Farmers themselves are net consumers of rice. They will benefit from the low prices of dumped rice. It was the folly of trying to achieve self-sufficiency in the first place because we can’t produce rice competitively.

    My reaction to the so-called experts: Get A Grasp Of …. Facts. Shortly put: GAGO, get your facts straight. GAGO is the acronym of “get a grasp of.”

    Why do I maintain that the apologists for the QR lifting have to get their facts straight before they render their erroneous, fact-free post mortems? First, a telling of a not-so-ancient time, a glorious one, in Philippine agriculture.

    In the 60s and the 70s (I started tending to our carabaos and learning about farming at the age of 5 so I know all these), the late organizational and management genius Paeng Salas masterminded a program called Green Revolution that was designed to achieve self-sufficiency on basic cash crops, with the emphasis on rice, the staple food.

    The components of the programs were many but I will cite the four that rhyme with the word “ dedication.” These were:

    * Extension work. Cadres of young dedicated agriculturists in their ubiquitous Enduros, mostly graduates of UPLB and Araneta University, extended technical support to farmers on modern and updated rice production technologies.

    * Credit extension. Rural banks and coops were tapped as conduits for cheap agricultural loans and the then Central Bank, now BSP, had a special window for agricultural credit.

    * Irrigation. The rice farms covered by Salas’s supervised food production programs had year-round irrigation and three crops a year were normal.

    * Innovation. Rice strains such as the “Miracle Rice” came out of research labs to make sure that the seeds plus the proper technical and other forms of support would produce a yield of at least 99 cavans per hectare. The rice program that evolved from the Green Revolution was later called “Masagana 99.”

    What was the result of Mr. Salas’s efforts? Rice self-sufficiency, and surpluses that were used as either buffer stock or exported rice.

    After Mr. Salas left the program, the predictable slide took place. Rural banks started padding their agricultural loans and diverted these to mainstream borrowers for a mark-up of anywhere from 5 to 10 percent on the interest charges. The new rice strains started to show their downside, tungro was the most lethal. We the farmers had our share of the blame. The new prosperity led us to tupadas, where we gambled away our surplus from the back-breaking work.

    And this was the precarious time when the multilateral institutions began drafting the “Washington Consensus” that eventually did away with subsidized loans to agriculture.

    Even with those, we cannot deny this. The Salas saga showed that the dream of rice self-sufficiency, given the proper institutions and the proper support, can be achieved.

    After Salas and the adoption- hook, line, sinker – of the Washington Consensus, all succeeding administrations skewed their policies toward an urban bias. That placed agriculture at the bottom of development priorities.

    While Thailand and Vietnam took off from the core planks of Mr. Salas’ Green Revolution and added a strong agricultural R and D as complement, our agricultural policies completely took away credit extension, technical support through the extension workers and our R and D for agriculture was one of the smallest in the Asian continent. This is also true. The pioneers of Thailand’s own rice revolution trained at UP Los Baños.

    Irrigation service was scaled down as the plundered watersheds made the major multi-purpose dams dry up during the summer months.

    While importing 20,000 metric tons of rice was an embarrassment before, today we gleefully import 1.5 million metric tons a year and allow smugglers to go on reckless technical smuggling binges.

    Our competitors borrow rice production loans at six percent a year. When small farmers borrow, it is 15 percent for heavily collateralized loans.

    Mr. Aquino’s last quarter in office showed a negative four percent drop in the performance of the agriculture sector. That year, we imported roughly two million metric tons of rice.

    Real estate developers and land bankers continue with the merry ways of converting irrigated rice lands into jungles of concrete and steel with ease.

    Reckless conversion, feckless agricultural policies, dried-up dams, almost zero R and D, inadequate funding, sky-high interest on farm loans and the overall urban bias of state policies.

    With all of these in context, could we really expect an inspired rice production program with enough produce to meet the national needs at costs that are competitive? Get a grasp of facts, please. Get your facts straight. Shorter version? GAGO.

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    5 Comments

    1. Rice is such a low value but high labor crop with minimal nutritional value. Why not consider a slow transition to other crops offering higher value and better nutrition? Most people think the idea is absurd but with such low returns on investment and labor it’s no wonder farmers get discouraged with rice and fail to maximize production. What’s in is for them after they feed themselves? Not a lot if the decline in production is any indication.

    2. jose b. taganahan on

      The writer mas be a “GAGO” if he still believed that we can still be self sufficient in rice as in the seventies.. He should know that the population of the Philippines in 1972 was only about a third of the present Philippine population while the area of land planted to rice is not expanding but rather shrinking by converting some rice lands particularly in central Luzon and southern Luzon into housing areas. Confounding our problems, our rivers are being silted for a variety of reasons thereby reducing their capacity to irrigate rice lands.

    3. You forgot to mentioned Ferdinand E. Marcos, without him Mr. Salas’ Green Revolution will not be materialized. Next time when you mentioned the progress during “golden age” for Philippine economy, mentioned also Ferdinand Edralin Marcos.

    4. Who was the president in the 70s? Right, the yellows (that you deny exist) and the reds keep bashing. If only the succeeding presidents continued the vision of FM, then we would have been sufficient until now. IRRI designed rice that do not need lots of water. Foreigners learned from us. The other vision of FM is steel production. Though nuclear energy is something we should avoid if we can help it, but at that time the vision of a Philippines not reliant to oil all the time would have made our energy sector sufficient as well as we transition to renewal and cleaner energy. If only the vision of FM was continued, we would have emerged as the real tiger of Southeast Asia. And this I say in hindsight and regretted that I was anti-Marcos in my youth. Tiglao has realized how visionary FM was.