Government must make rice farmers more competitive

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[Editor’s note: The first part of this series discussed the constraints the Philippines faces in striving to attain self-sufficiency in rice, which include limitations in land, and farmers needing more government support.]

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Second of three parts
At the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in Nueva Ecija, Filipino scientists seem to be in a race against time to develop higher-yielding varieties that will help the country achieve 100-percent production of the staple in the next few years, or hopefully before the end of the term of President Benigno Aquino 3rd in 2016.

PhilRice, created by then-President Ferdinand Marcos a few months before the 1986 Edsa Revolution, released late last year several rice varieties that can yield from 6 metric tons per hectare to as high as 10 MT/ha.

Those varieties are good news for farmers in the country, where the average yield of all rice farms is 3 to 4 MT/ha of palay (unmilled) rice per hectare, still below the world average of 4.4 MT/ha.

Even the private sector is contributing to efforts to boost the average yield per hectare of rice farms in the Philippines. Early this month, SL Agritech released hybrid seed varieties that have potential yields of up to 10 MT/ha.

PhilRice Director Eufemio Rasco Jr. said there are farmers who are capable of getting yields as high as 10 MT/hectare.

“Many farmers report that they could achieve it in their farms,” he told The Manila Times.

While efforts to develop high-yielding rice varieties in the Philippines are very encouraging, it still costs more to produce a kilogram of palay (unmilled rice) in the Philippines compared to the leading exporters.

“For example, cost of paddy [palay]production per kilogram is about P11 for the Philippines, and only P5 and P8 [per kilogram]for Vietnam and Thailand, respectively,” Rasco said, citing an ongoing PhilRice study on the competitiveness of Filipino rice farmers.

He said countries like Thailand and Vietnam provide more support to their farmers, citing that irrigation water is free and interest on loans is lower in these countries.

“Subsidy for mechanization is more extensive too. R&D [research and development]expenditure as percent of value-added for agriculture is higher, assuring a continuing flow of improved technologies to the farmers,” Rasco added.

Comparatively speaking, irrigation water needs to be paid by the Filipino rice farmers whose lands are covered by national irrigation systems, and lending to farmers usually carry commercial rates.

Careful monitoring
Dr. Saturnina Halos, a respected figure in the Philippine agriculture scene, believes that government policy should also favor the small farmer, and that programs for the agriculture sector that have big funding should be carefully monitored.

“Actually, our economists would say the government has been spending too much on rice as per budgetary allocations and [the spending]is way above [the grain’s]contribution to the agricultural economy [and is being done]at the expense of support for other agricultural commodities. What we need is a plan to use the money wisely.

The current practice of using the money to buy [farm]inputs for distribution is prone to corruption and is money down the drain,” she said.

To make sure that money would be well spent to boost rice production until 2016, the Department of Agriculture (DA) is drafting the Rice Road Map.

A DA source said the Rice Road Map will incorporate mechanization and use of hybrid seeds to help boost rice production to self-sufficient levels. The Rice Road Map will be completed in three to six months.

“We will attain rice self-sufficiency not by a miracle, we should strengthen the programs of the Department of Agriculture that will help increase rice production like the utilization of hybrid rice varieties that can give higher yields, and drought- and climate change-resistant varieties,” Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala Jr. told The Manila Times.

According to PhilRice, less than 10 percent of rice farms in the Philippines, or around 300,000 to 350,000 hectares, use hybrid seeds. In contrast, Vietnam has more than 500,000 hectares planted to hybrid rice seeds, while about 57 percent or 17 million of the 30 million hectares of land in China planted to rice use hybrid seeds, according to oryza.com.

Another DA source, however, said making farmers shift to hybrid seeds is not easy, because hybrid seeds cost up to two times more than the inbred and certified seeds.

The good news is the DA is considering a program to promote the wider use of hybrid seeds in the Rice Road Map, in line with the Food Staples Sufficiency Program’s goal to make another 10 percent of rice farms in the Philippines use such high-yielding seeds. Funds for that measure will be taken from the P7 billion the DA is allocating for its Rice Program this year.

In increasing the level of farm mechanization in the Philippines, the DA has so far been successful through the Philippine Center for Post-Harvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech).

Through a scheme where the DA through PhilMech shoulders 85 percent of the cost of farm machines for qualified farmer organizations, the mechanization of rice farms has reached 2 horsepower per hectare, or above the national average of 1.52 hp/ha.

Some provinces, particularly those leading in rice production, have also reached astounding mechanization levels, particularly Pangasinan (12.41 hp/ha), Nueva Ecija (9.13 hp/ha), Isabela (9.52 hp/ha) and surprisingly, the mountainous province of Kalinga (7.41 hp/ha).

“The trend of mechanization is slowly taking root in the country’s agriculture sector, with rice farmers taking the lead, which shows that our rice farmers want to be competitive,” PhilMech Executive Director Rex Bingabing said.

Conclusion: Self-sufficiency still a worthy goal

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