As I handed my payment to the jeepney driver on my way to work, his remark to several of passengers (including me) of “Singkwenta pa, singkwenta pa” initially confused me. It dawned on me that he was asking us an additional of fifty centavos on top of the usual eight-peso fare instead of fifty more passengers. Jeepney rates have increased! After fumbling around for two twenty five centavos to add to my fare, I sat down thinking silently how prices have risen for the past few years.
It is not just transport prices that have increased but also that of electricity, education and food. Rice prices have been steadily increasing since the start of the year. Looking back at the prices since the start of the Aquino government, regular milled rice prices have soared by at least 20 percent as of April this year when compared to that of July 2010 (according to data from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics). Since mid-year last year, rice prices have increased by an average of 1.2 percent per month as compared to less than a tenth of a percent (0.04 %) for the same period a year before. Prices have reportedly increased recently by another 2 pesos compared to the said April prices (at 30 pesos per kilo, current prices of regular milled rice is 30 percent greater than that of 2010 prices).
What is worrisome is the still undeclared (but expected by many) El Niño cycle this year. Despite the advent of the rainy season, an El Nino event is expected to reduce the amount of rainfall in general to the country.
The El Niño that transpired more than a decade ago affected Western Luzon, Western Visayas, Northern Samar, and the southern part of Western Mindanao as they experienced less than 40 percent of normal rainfall. The Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) estimated a decrease of 7.5 percent in agricultural growth during that event. Rice and corn production decreased by almost 24.1percent and 26.6 percent, respectively and damaged 292,000 hectares of corn and rice farm lands in our country.
Around 70 percent of the archipelago suffered from severe drought and the water supply crisis during that time left 27,000 hectares of rice and corn paddies severely damaged. This is equivalent to an estimated loss of 100,000 million metric tons (MMT) of rice and has affected 15,000 farmer households.
Engr. Ronald Garcia, agricultural engineer at AGHAM—Advocates of Science and Technology for the People—estimates that at least 27 percent of rain-fed agricultural lands will be severely affected without irrigation systems in place. In 2000 to 2010, 73 percent or 314,115 MT of the production increase came from irrigated areas while only 27 percent or 113,815 MT came from non-irrigated areas. Productivity of rain-fed upland areas was reported to be declining by around 8000 tons per year since 2000.
Garcia pointed out that we must brace ourselves from the possibility of rice production shortage once the worst of the dry spell hits the country. Prices of rice and corn and other agricultural products are expected to go up due to lower production. He added that a strategic irrigation action plan is one immediate measure that must be in place for the government to prepare for the El Niño event since water will be the outmost concern during that time. During the dry period, irrigation for food production is a critical farm infrastructure that should be prepared for and managed by the government.
What makes things worse for the upcoming El Nino is that our dependence on rice imports severely puts our food security into question. A study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) by Dr. Roehlano Briones and Ivory Myka Galang blames the mid-2013 rice price increase to the reduction in imports by the government that caused a decrease in supply.
Despite the Department of Agriculture’s Food Staples Sufficiency Program (FSSP), which aimed to raise domestic rice production, the increase in palay production had not been enough to offset the reduction in imports. The country already imports 1.2 million tons in 2014 according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) while the US Department of Agriculture estimates this to be more than 2 million tons.
While the PIDS study points to more dependence on rice imports by lifting the quantitative restriction (QR) policy as a solution, a more basic solution would be to implement a thoroughgoing agrarian reform that would include land redistribution (unlike the CARPER system) to tillers, agricultural modernization and integration of the agricultural sector to a domestic industrial regime. Both of these are yet to be realized in our country.
Garcia notes that it should be a lesson to the government that food security and self-sufficiency cannot be realized overnight unless there is necessary support for the farmers such as their own land, subsidies, policies to support to enhance agricultural productivity and upgrade our post-harvest facilities and ways to ensure a market for their produce.
The total wasted funds from the PDAF scam, the fertilizer fund scam, and misuse of the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund is a staggering P10.744 billion. This is more than 12 times than the allocation for El Niño contingencies. Such funds should be made available to farmers to allow them to cope with climate variability instead of going into the pockets of those enmeshed in the web of corruption that pervades our government today.