THE outgoing Agrarian Reform secretary created a public stir this past week when he called a press conference to announce that the department had crafted a strategy to make rice available to consumers at P20 per kilogram (kg). The ludicrous suggestion simply highlighted the need for the government to, on the one hand, intensify its focus on realistic and achievable solutions to ensure the country's food security; and, on the other, be more credible and responsible in its communications with the public.

"Food security" is a term that is often used, but is not often well-defined. From our point of view, food security for the Philippines describes a state in which the country is able to produce an adequate and reliable supply of essential food commodities to meet the basic needs of the entire population without relying on imports; while, at the same time, ensuring that food is both affordable to all consumers, and providing sufficient income to producers so that production remains sustainable.

The Philippines is not in that state now, and has a long way to go to achieve it, in part because government officials, who may at times have ulterior motives, focus on impractical "quick fix" solutions out of a misguided belief that this will earn them greater public support. We are not going to assess the merits of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) "strategy" because it has none. Agricultural planning does fall within DAR's purview, so anything that was said was spoken out of turn, unless the outgoing secretary was speaking in a personal capacity, which he did not indicate. The statement was, however, an example of the faulty, and often irresponsible "quick fix" approach, and so is worth mentioning in that context.

The "P20 per kilo rice" idea was born out of a statement made during the election campaign by President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in answer to the public's growing worries over skyrocketing food prices. As election campaigns are intensive exercises in marketing, most people are sensible enough to take such statements with a grain of salt, and sure enough, shortly after Marcos had gone from "candidate" to "incoming president," the point at which his ideas are no longer just ideas but expressions of actual policy, he prudently backed away from the statement, saying that it was an "aspiration." In other words, the focus of the government should be to reduce food prices as much as possible and, "wouldn't it be nice if rice was only P20 per kilo?"

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That was reasonable because it promises the public something that is achievable — lower food prices — without promising something that would be practically impossible to deliver, a specific target of P20 per kg. Government officials should be reminded to be reasonable and circumspect in their pronouncements. Making promises that will inevitably be broken is a grave disservice to the people, especially when they involve critical concerns such as feeding one's family, and unnecessarily subject the government to criticism.

Returning our focus to the real problem, that of working toward food security, there is much the government can do. Food production can be expanded by expanding irrigation, for example; there are some 1.8 million hectares of farmland that could be irrigated but isn't, because the development of irrigation systems is painfully slow. Employing a public-private partnership model (PPP) could resolve that dilemma, provided, of course, appropriate safeguards to keep costs to users reasonable are put in place. Freezing the conversion of land from agriculture to other purposes [mainly residential construction] will also help to preserve land resources for expanded food production.

As for the impact of food imports on prices and farm incomes, a particularly sore point for the nation's farmers, the government should employ the full range of protective measures permitted under World Trade Organization rules. Utilizing those provisions has only been done on a limited basis until now.

Finally, overhauling the National Food Authority (NFA) and properly bankrolling it so that it can effectively carry out its mandate to maintain a critical reserve supply of rice should also be near the top of the government's list of priorities.