• Rice self-sufficiency goal still worthy

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    Shortly after Super Typhoon Yolanda unleashed its wrath on parts of the Visayas, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala made a declaration that the Philippines will not achieve rice self-sufficiency this year, because about a third of the country’s rice-growing areas were devastated.

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    The National Food Administration (NFA) then ordered the importation of 500,000 metric tons (MT) of rice from abroad through a government-to-government deal, with Vietnam bagging the contract. While the 500,000-MT of rice from Vietnam will primarily be used to boost the country’s buffer stocks from 50 days to 90 days, it is obvious that much needs to be done to make sure the Philippines attains 100-percent rice self-sufficiency in the next few years, given that climate change is expected to cause more intense weather disturbances not only in the Philippines but in many Asian countries as well.

    While the rice sectors of Thailand and Vietnam—the world’s top rice exporters—have so far been spared from the devastation of monster typhoons, there is no discounting that more intense storms in the future can also wreak havoc on the farm sectors of those two nations.

    If Thailand and Vietnam will a few years away declare that they can no longer supply the world market for rice because of climate change factors, this would definitely be a nightmare for the Philippines, especially if the government gave into to pressure from certain private sector groups to liberalize rice importation, and abandon government-to-government deals.

    Let’s face it—the Philippine agriculture sector has suffered from years of neglect, and the Department of Agriculture (DA) has never been spared of corruption scandals. The infamous P700-million (or more) fertilizer fund scam may not even be the last of its kind, and there may be more suspected scams that came before it.

    But listening to some “experts” who say that rice self-sufficiency is an expensive and unworthy goal, given the large supply of rice in the world market, would be tantamount to shooting ones’ self on the foot.

    The influx of less costly rice from top exporters like Vietnam and Thailand will definitely result in the massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of rice farmers nationwide, and would swell the ranks of the unemployed who number in the millions.

    And with the government boasting that it has good fiscal management, which means that billions of pesos in funds are spent accordingly, the country’s farming sector does not see any reason why the Aquino administration should invest more in the country’s farmers.

    Thankfully, that is also slowly being realized, with the DA pushing for spending in irrigation services, use of suitable high-quality seed and other farm inputs, sustained research and development, promotion of on-farm mechanization to improve farm efficiency, extension services; and enhance economic incentives and enabling mechanism through enhancement of price support programs, provision of credit facilities to small farmers, and crop insurance.

    If the Aquino administration succeeds in helping the country achieve rice self-sufficiency even by 2015, it could make a boast that it did not neglect one of Philippines’s most neglected sectors—the poor farmers.

    Steps have been taken to reduce the country’s dependence on rice imports before Yolanda struck, but the devastation caused by the super typhoon on the country’s rice and farm sectors should not mean that rice self-sufficiency is not a worthy goal anymore.

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    1 Comment

    1. The problem with that rice self-sufficiency goal is that it is a major distraction from worthier agricultural programs and objectives. While rice may be the country’s staple food, it is subject to harsh weather conditions and calamities. Furthermore, the cost-to-benefit ratio of increasing rice production to self-sufficiency levels is questionable, as was proven by the “Masagana 99” fiasco during Ferdinand Marcos’ time. While “Masagana 99” arguably attained its goal of rice self-sufficiency for a fleeting period of time, the cost to government and supporting agencies was so high that it became self-defeating. Cheap loans and advances to farmers ended up unpaid, almost ruining the rural banking industry. Fertilizer subsidies added a staggering burden to government finances.

      Attaining rice self-sufficiency is too elusive and costly a goal that government is better served by focusing its agricultural programs to other crops. After all, man does not live by rice alone! For as long as the country is not beset with national security problems and has good relations with its ASEAN neighbors, it is more practical to import whatever shortages we have and concentrate on developing other crops which can create more jobs and bring in more value. These could be rubber, coffee, cocoa, abaca, root crops, fruits, vegetables or even oil palm. More time, effort and money can be spent on further developing fisheries and animal production.

      There are, as they say, many ways to skin a cat. And definitely, there are more productive and profitable ways to grow agriculture other than getting stuck in the rut of rice self-sufficiency.