THE statistics are staggering. According to the International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines wastes more than 300,000 tons of rice annually. This translates to a cost of more than P20 million a day, or about P8 billion annually.
To put this in the proper perspective, the annual volume of rice wastage is equivalent to a third of rice imports, an issue that is fraught with political, economic and even health considerations. All this because Filipinos, on the average, are said to waste three tablespoons of rice every day.
But the proposal to ban “unlimited rice” servings in some restaurants, apparently a knee-jerk one, by Sen. Cynthia Villar, seems misplaced. This week, in a Senate hearing on the country’s rice importation and failed attempts to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production, these statistics on rice wastage were again brought up, along with the ill effects of too much rice consumption on the health.
Betraying the Big-Brother or draconian tendencies many Filipino politicians have, Villar proposed to stop restaurants from offering “unlimited rice” promotions to their customers. It touched a raw nerve especially on social media, with the senator being the subject of a few memes.
On Twitter, parody accounts of local fast-food chains made fun of the proposed “unli-rice ban.” It’s likely a manifestation of Filipinos’ frustrations with the misplaced priorities of some politicos. Indeed, there are bigger problems to tackle than restaurants’ unli-rice promos. As expected, Villar walked back her proposal.
Equating unli-rice to wastage is a debatable proposition. Perhaps Villar has not eaten in restaurants offering these promos. Waiters often make it a point to ask customers how many cups of rice they need, and serve rice only when requested. The restaurants, it seems, are aware of the likelihood of wastage, and often use very small cups.
Needless to say, these promos are popular. To many working-class Filipinos, it’s perhaps the only luxury they could afford given the rising cost of food, but one that could easily fill their stomachs. Thus, the immediate backlash on the senator.
A more sound proposal is Senate Bill 1863 filed by former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in 2013. It sought to penalize not unli-rice promos, but the practice among restaurants of refusing to serve less than a cup of rice, and proposed to fine these establishments up to P100,000. To keen observers of Filipino habit, the wastage happens with those who order more rice than they are able to consume, not with those who are willing to pay for an extra serving.
To be sure, the solution to rice wastage is education, not Machiavellian impositions. Villar could instead fund an extensive campaign to curb rice wastage, for instance, by emphasizing the ill effects of a high-carbohydrate diet, among them diabetes and heart disease.
To be fair, Villar is advocating more brown rice consumption. A recent Manila Times story notes that brown rice, or “Pinawa” among Tagalogs, is simply unpolished white rice, but has more protein, fiber, good fats, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B9 and E, antioxidants and minerals than white rice.
According to the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), brown rice can help reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
Moreover, brown rice also encourages balanced eating — based on testimonial evidence, as gathered by PhilRice consultant Cezar Mamaril, people consume less rice when they eat brown rice. People get their fill sooner, because brown grains weigh heavier.
An issue that touchers right at the heart of Filipino culture and lifestyle deserves greater introspection, not knee-jerk thinking. Politicians cannot simply propose to restrict the demand side of rice consumption, just because they find it harder to deal with the supply side.