First of three parts

    “Eat ‘kamote,’ Save on rice” was the headline of the banner story of The Manila Times on March 15, 2008, amid a backdrop of massive rice importations by the government that same year, which was more than 2 million metric tons (MT).

    Although the headline was executed to make it catchy, the thought of more Filipinos eating kamote (sweet potato) can become a reality in the next few years if domestic rice production is not boosted to supply 100 percent of the country’s need.

    Although the Philippines has been setting record production goals for palay (unmilled rice) since 2001, rice self-sufficiency has remained an elusive goal.

    Based on data from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS), which is attached to the Department of Agriculture (DA), palay production for 2013 reached 18.44 million metric tons (MT), up from the 2012 production level of 18.03 million MT.

    The Philippines also saw an unprecedented increase in palay production from 15.77 million MT in 2010 to 16.68 million MT in 2011.

    For this year, the DA is targeting to produce 19.32 million MT of palay, or a 4-percent increase over 2013. With an average milling recovery of about 60 percent from palay, the estimated rice output in the past four years were 9.46 million MT in 2010; 10 million MT in 2011; 11.06 million MT in 2012; and 11.30 million MT in 2013.

    Despite steady increase in palay yields, the country achieved last year a self-sufficiency level of only 98 percent.

    Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala Jr. believes that the country can attain 100-percent rice self-sufficiency by 2015.

    “But we need more of the intervention of the national government, because we are still lacking in projects for that,” he told The Times in an interview.

    Alcala sees the appointment of former Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan as Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization a positive factor.

    “Between us with Secretary Kiko, this is not about showing who is better… I see us like two carabaos plowing toward one direction. The DA is a big bureaucracy, and maybe President Benigno Aquino 3rd sees a number of problems. And I am a good soldier and whatever my commander says, I will obey,” he said.

    Pangilinan believes that “irreversible” agricultural growth can only be realized between 15 and 20 years as shown by the experiences of other Asian countries.

    “Whoever says that it can be fixed in two years [or], in fact, within six years, is just joking because it cannot be [done],” he said.

    And it looks like Alcala and Pangilinan will have to work double time for the country to achieve 100 percent rice self-sufficiency by 2015.

    In 2010, rice imports were at 2.4 million MT. The figure went down to 860,000 MT in 2011, 500,000 MT in 2012 and to 200,000 MT last year. This year, rice imports will likely reach 1 million MT.

    The DA in 2010 included in its Food Staples Sufficiency Program (FSSP) the promotion of the consumption of other crops, including kamote, to ease pressure on domestic rice supplies.

    “Recent studies of the demand for food in the Philippines show that corn, banana and cassava are substitutes for rice based on cross-price elasticities, implying that an increase in the price of rice results in a shift in consumption toward these commodities [Francisco et al. 2011, Abad Santos 2010, Chen 2009]. Thus, to the extent that these are important to households in less favorable environment, addressing food security and poverty requires paying closer attention to non-rice staples. Moreover, encouraging the consumption of these staples eases the pressure on rice,” a portion of a document on the FSSP said.

    Limited lands for rice
    In drafting the FSSP, the DA had to face one reality: the country does not have enough natural resources like Vietnam and Thailand when it comes to growing rice, a view which many rice experts share.

    “The task [of producing enough rice for the Philippines]is made more difficult by an increasingly fragile resource base. To meet this challenge, government must significantly boost productivity and production levels, promote prudent consumption of rice and encourage food staples diversification,” the FSSP document said.

    This view is echoed by Dr. Bruce Tolentino, director of the International Rice Research Institute.

    “Crucially, for the Philippines to increase its production capacity significantly, the country will have to overcome the limitations of available land. The Philippines has in fact less land for rice than other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam,” Tolentino said.

    Thailand has 9.2 million hectares of land planted to rice, while Vietnam has 4.2 million hectares. The Philippines has about 3.5 million hectares of land planted to rice.

    If it is any consolation, the Philippines has improved the average yield per hectare for palay over the past five years from 2 to 3 metric tons per hectare to 3 to 4 MT/ha, which is slightly higher than that of Thailand (almost 3 MT/ha) and India (about 3.5 MT/ha), based on data gathered from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) by oryza.com, a leading rice website. Vietnam’s average yield is approaching 6 MT/ha, while the world average is 4.4 MT/ha.

    Alcala declared rice self-sufficiency a goal from the onset of the Aquino administration, which has seen the DA allocate increasing budget for its Rice Program since 2012: P5 billion in 2012; P6.5 billion in 2013; and P7 billion for this year.

    Until last year, the bulk of spending for the rice program was for irrigation, with mechanization coming in second.

    But the current regime’s taking the lead in rice imports and imposing quantitative restrictions (QRs) on rice imports have come under fire, with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima believing that such a practice may violate the terms set by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

    Sonny Domingo, a long-time farmer leader, however sees QRs on rice imports as the best defense for the country’s farming sector, which he sees largely as being neglected by government.

    “The QR is a safety net for the farmers producing such a sensitive commodity, which is rice. This will protect them from the flooding of cheaper rice. To now allow the importation of cheaper rice will mean a collapse of the rice industry” he said.


    To be continued


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