MANY so-called public intellectuals are suffocated/perplexed /bored by the never-ending capability of rice to pop up in the national conversation. After some moments of quiet, rice—mostly its woes and challenges—grabs the headlines anew. And the headlines lately have been focused on the usual suspects: imports and corruption at the National Food Authority (NFA), greedy rice traders, QR and what the state needs to do to stabilize rice supply.
The quest for self -sufficiency is a story as old as the Republic.
And such resurfacing vexes the so-called public intellectual no end. What is there in rice, they ask, that policies over it never seem to be out of mind and out of the headlines? Is this not a simple problem of demand, which could be filled on the cheap by Thailand, Vietnam and the others? To them, rice economics and rice-related issues do not really merit all the headlines and policy discussions which they feel are squandered on rice.
The clueless think tanks usually segue from the lament of the bored, so-called public intellectuals. Their take? The dream of rice self-sufficiency is, at best, delusional.
To the bored and the clueless, it is all about the lack of complication of the rice supply situation: cheap imports are always available to fill any shortage plus a buffer stock, usually a 90-day buffer. There is a total absence of heterodox views, or views to the contrary.
Rice is an important issue because it is the national staple, you dummies. We, locals, consume it everyday, morning, noon and evening. We can’t live without it. And you still wonder why it is never expunged from the state’s policy discussions? Even in the various global diasporas, the Pinoy will always ask for rice before anything else. Quit rice and it will become “out of mind, out of sight and out of the headlines.” More, rice issues have simply leapt beyond the demand/supply equation, and that I will explain in the succeeding paragraphs.
And meeting demand is not as simple as placing orders overseas.
Remember the construction of the Narita Airport in Japan several decades ago? How a few rice farmers held up the construction of what was then the planned main international gateway to Japan because they felt that no airport in the world was more important than their paddies that supplied the needs of a few households? Ok, I am an old man. An ancient farmer who remembers. The Narita story is instructive. Across the Asian continent, in every place that considers rice the main staple, rice issues will always have the gravitas they deserve.
With the Philippines’ rice-based diet—we are the only country in the world where a simple “ unli rice” promo can change the fortunes of a small chicken inasal company—issues that touch on rice are extraordinarily important to us.
Why are rice issues beyond the supply and demand equation?
While the first organized agrarian strike in the country in the 1930s was staged at a sugar hacienda (the Hacienda del Prado in Barangay Del Prado in Lubao, Pampanga), the agrarian unrest was led by discontented, landless, rice tenants. The landowner-serf nature of the rice tenancy system was the one that provided the first eager, determined warm bodies (ready to kill and be killed) to the Huk movement.
The land reform program was first imposed on rice farms to help quell the Marxist insurrection. It took years before the land redistribution program covered sugar haciendas and the other big landowners. The need to protect small rice farmers, was, until the dying years of the 20thcentury, a paramount concern of every Philippine President.
The current rice issues may have been sanitized of their political undertones but one narrative still fuels the angst of rice farmers – the factor of neglect. How can rice issues be simple supply and demand issues when Filipino farmers do not enjoy the support other governments, Thailand in particular, give willingly and in abundance to their rice farmers?
Thai rice farmers get 6 percent for their rice production loans and Bangkok throws in a plethora of institutional support other than the cheap credit. Their public research universities—their first batches of agronomy experts trained at the UP Los Baños—support the agriculture sector with prodigious R&D work.
The same is true in Vietnam and the Mekong guarantees year-round irrigation to Vietnam’s rice lands.
Mr. Aquino, remember, used the Napoles scam to cut off the token support structures to rice farmers. Every chance it gets, the government screws the rice farmers.
So, let us all stop this nonsense about treating the rice issues as nonsense. What we need to do is give Mr. Piñol everything he needs—from the funds to the R&D work— to fulfil the long-time dream of achieving rice self -sufficiency.
I will paraphrase Bakunin. Give the DA secretary P100 billion every year for the next five years and he will turn things upside down.