IN 1962, not long before Ferdinand Marcos was elected president, the Philippines was at the forefront of pioneering scientific research on rice that introduced high-yielding varieties to the country. Supported by several international agencies, including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the main goal was to increase food production. Working at the newly established International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Baños, Laguna, scientists from all over the world developed a type of rice that produced heavy heads of grain that grew on short, robust stalks able to bear the weight of the grain without toppling over. This rice variety, called IR-8, required intensive irrigation, plenty of fertilizer, and chemical pesticides, to flourish. Output doubled. Between 1962 to 1964 and 1983 to 1985, with steady increases in between, rice yields rose from 1.24 to 2.48 metric tons of palay per hectare.
The increase was spectacular and unprecedented. For the first time, the chance to effect real equitable change in the lives of the poor was within the government’s grasp. However, despite its promising start, the green revolution in the Philippines did not deliver the gains it was supposed to. Not only did it fail to improve the conditions of the poor but, ironically, the poor slid further into hardship. The opportunity was squandered. What happened?
Under Marcos, per capita income rose, there was a rice surplus, and the price of rice fell. But, to simplify a complicated story, the period from 1965 to 1986 was a paradox. There was economic growth yet it caused massive impoverishment. The American economist James K. Boyce calls this phenomenon “immiserizing growth,” when economic growth, and political and social conditions are such that the rich get absolutely richer and the poor become absolutely poorer.
After the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, there was a decline in the absolute incomes of the poor. Millions were without access to basic needs, hunger was widespread, with infants and children hardest hit. Impoverishment prevented the poor from buying rice, even when rice prices were at their lowest. In a 1979 review of Philippine grain production policy, the World Bank found that total rice consumption in the 1970s slowed, growing at only 2.9%, barely in step with the rate of population increase. The poor were not filling up on bread and cake. They were not eating.
Studies by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute found that by 1982, two thirds of families consumed less than the recommended minimum daily calorie intake. 25% of the country’s pre-schoolers were stunted, 14% were wasted, and an appalling 69% were underweight. Between 1970 and 1983, infant mortality was at 59 per 1,000 in rural areas and 55 per 1,000 in urban areas – among the highest in East and Southeast Asia. The cause of infant and child deaths could be directly traced to hunger and a lack of basic health care services. While the Marcos government injected $229 million into private hospitals specializing in single organ diseases (the Philippine Heart Center, National Kidney Foundation, and the Lung Center of the Philippines), which catered to the rich, primary health care fell by the wayside. A damning UNICEF report declared it a gross misallocation of resources. Babies and children died from entirely preventable illnesses — diarrhea, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, and common respiratory infections due to undernourishment.
Elsewhere in Asia, the green revolution pulled countries out from the abyss. It helped China recover from Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward and India to overcome mass starvation. In the Philippine case, boosting rice production occurred in a highly inequitable social setting where disparities in wealth and power at both the national and barangay level determined who would be favored from the outset. Had the Marcos government addressed land reform and redistribution of wealth, then more egalitarian and sustained growth might have resulted.
Under Marcos, precisely the opposite occurred. The primary beneficiaries of the green revolution in the Philippines were those who had access to financing and water — the rural elites who came from the ranks of the old landlord classes and upwardly mobile tenant farmers who, with larger farms, were awarded capital subsidies from the government. Subsidies were especially necessary in purchasing the expensive fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, needed by the high yielding varieties. Use of chemical pesticides led to an environmental disaster. Fish, another food staple of the poor, and other aquatic life, became contaminated, compounding the hunger problem still further.
“One cannot explain the prevalence of malnutrition in a period of increasing food and agricultural production as primarily a supply problem” Boyce observed. “Rather, it is a case of the uneven distribution of the available food within the population…the inequitable and worsening distribution of purchasing power.”
Under Marcos the green revolution became a privately profitable enterprise.
It is said that the best lies hold a grain of truth. Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos recently asked: “Will I say sorry for the agricultural policy that brought us to self sufficiency in rice?” Bongbong has consistently taken a defiantly unrepentant stance toward his late father’s rule. Born in 1957, he was in his twenties during the period of the green revolution. He did not go hungry himself and, like his father, showed little empathy for the millions who did.