2008 BEST AGRICULTURE FEATURE STORY - NATIONAL
"Rice crisis 'Imminent' a long time ago"
By Peter Conrad Carino
"Sufficiency not impossible, experts say"
It is quite ironic that the Philippines, with its Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and host to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has never been rice self-sufficient for the most part of the last 20 years.
While some argue that the Philippines is not blessed like Thailand, India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh, with plains and deltas more highly suitable for rice farming, local experts believe the country could still attain rice self-sufficiency, making imports unnecessary.
In fact, the country even exported rice when then-President Ferdinand Marcos implemented the highly successful “Masagana 99” program. The government carried it out even when a rice crisis was not imminent.
Some of the problems causing our low rice production even have immediate solutions on hand. And many causes of low rice production could have been avoided if the government had foreseen the present crunch in world rice supply.
Food Minister Tanchangco
One of those who foresaw today’s world rice supply problem is Jesus Tanchangco, the former Food Minister of Marcos. More than a year ago, Tanchangco was already making statements that the country could not entirely rely on imported rice to solve domestic production shortages.
“Taking the world supply of rice, for example, statistics show that of the total quantity of rice produced worldwide, less than 3 percent is being traded,” he said.
The former food minister said that a slight decrease in worldwide rice production, as low as 5 percent, would affect many rice-producing countries, including those that import the grain.
Many factors can affect worldwide rice production. IRRI President Robert Zeigler, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, cited “adverse weather in Bangladesh, pests and disease in Vietnam, and political problems in Myanmar” as factors that will make a dent on worldwide rice supply.
The Climate Change Group of IRRI also discovered that a drop of 1 degree centigrade in climate temperatures can result in a 10-percent drop in rice yields.
Before the country signed a deal to buy large quantities of rice from Vietnam, Sen. Mar Roxas had warned that “Thailand, which used to sell rice to the Philippines, could not commit to sell rice. Vietnam, for its part, said it could be able to sell only one-half of the total metric tons the Philippines used to buy.”
The Philippines-Vietnam agreement in March for the supply of 1.5 million MT of the grains has a clause stating “Vietnamese government agrees to sell, unless under circumstances of natural disaster and harvest loss,” which makes it possible for Vietnam to refuse to deliver rice to us.
For this year, the Philippines will import up to two million metric tons of rice, even if rice harvests this year reach over 16 million MT.
Rice importations in this crisis could have been avoided had the government invested more in the agriculture sector than spending the money on rice imports.
Palawan’s Rep. Abraham Mitra last year suggested that the billions of pesos used to import rice should be allocated to increase the domestic production.
He even pointed out that a fraction of the import funds can be used to improve post-harvest facilities.
Post-harvest losses in rice hovers around 14 to 25 percent. This means that if post-harvest losses are addressed, there may be no need to import rice, because according to the Department of Agriculture, the country today is 90-percent self-sufficient in rice.
Felino Garcia Jr., a farmer leader in Nueva Vizcaya, even said the government subsidy to propagate high-yielding hybrid rice seeds is miniscule compared to the billions of pesos spent for rice imports.
At present, the government shoulders half of the cost of hybrid seeds bought by farmers through the GMA (Ginintuang Masaganang Ani) Rice Program.
Hybrid seeds can improve yields by about 30 percent. There are even hybrid rice farmers who report palay (unhusked rice) yields of above 10 MT per hectare per cropping on irrigated rice fields, which is very high compared to the 3.49 MT national average, also for irrigated lands.
Largely to blame for today’s rice crisis is the flawed policy of past administrations not to spend heavily on agriculture to make the country self-sufficient.
Notably, when Marcos fled the country in 1986, the government’s buffer stocks for rice was 900,000 MT, making importations unnecessary. It was only in 1973, during the Marcos regime, that rice had to be imported because typhoons that hit Central Luzon in 1972 destroyed much of the expected harvest.
Since 1988, the country was only rice-self sufficient for a short breakwhen Roberto Sebastian was Agriculture secretary.
Since then, the country has been importing rice. What could have possibly gone wrong?
Arsenio Balisacan, a respected figure in academe and agriculture circles who heads the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research and Agriculture (SEARCA), believes that the government’s investment in the agriculture sector is inappropriately low.
“The country’s investments in agricultural research and related activities have remained at a low level of 0.1 percent of the country’s Gross Value Added [GVA] in agriculture over the past 10 years. This is far below the 1-percent level recommended for developing countries and very much lower than the 2 to 3 percent observed in many countries,” Balisacan said in a paper about the state of Philippine agriculture.
Balisacan said that China’s investment in agriculture in the mid-2000s was 0.8 percent of GVA, which explains why that country is now an agricultural production powerhouse.
Spending per farmer
In an interview with The Manila Times, an official of the Agriculture department said the country spends only P1,000 per farmer, which is low compared to the P3,000 to P4,000 per farmer spent by countries like Thailand, Japan and other developed countries.
Likewise, much has to be done to develop agriculture infrastructure, for example, in irrigation. Data from the National Irrigation Administration show that in 2006, 705,000 hectares were served by national irrigation systems out of the 3.12 million hectares of irrigable lands, which are mostly rice. If there is any consolation, the total area served by irrigation systems as of 2006 is 1.428 million hectares, because of the contribution of communal systems (549,000 hectares) and private irrigation (174,000 hectares).
In contrast, the Marcos administration under the Masagana 99 attained a target of 1.6 million hectares of farms for irrigation, of which 1.3 million hectares were covered by national systems. The rest was served by communal irrigation systems.
Rice sufficiency not impossible, experts say
(Last of two parts)
(Editor’s note: In the first part, the author writes of the Marcos “Masagana 99” program. The administration pursued it even if a rice crisis was not “imminent.” It made the Philippines a rice-exporting nation. The threat of a rice-shortage crisis has always been a threat because the country has not been self-sufficient in rice for most of the last two decades. This is owing to wrong macroeconomic government policies on agriculture.)
With low investments in agriculture, most especially rice farms, the palay yields per hectare hovers from three to four tons in non-irrigated farms, with the higher range produced in irrigated lands.
In China, palay yields of 10 to 12 tons per hectare, per cropping are not unusual. China was once an importer of rice, but strived for self-sufficiency by spending heavily on agriculture.
With the government investing so little in agriculture, it is no wonder that poverty is very high among agricultural households in the Philippines.
“Poverty incidence among agricultural households is about four times that in the rest of the population. While only a little more than one-third of the labor force is in agriculture, two of every three destitute persons are dependent directly on agriculture for employment and sustenance,” said Arsenio Balisacan, head of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research and Agriculture (SEARCA).
Compounding the lack of rice self-sufficiency is the country’s growing population and the dwindling supply of arable lands to plant rice. This combination can be explosive, since an increasing population means more farming areas have to be developed for human habitation.
Rodelio Cataring, the technical assistant to the director of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management, said rice is best planted on arable plains or flat lands, and that most of the two to four million hectares of idle lands that the government can open up for new agricultural activities are mostly on hilly or upland areas that may not be suitable for planting rice on a large scale.
While the conversion of rice lands for commercial, industrial or residential use can be checked by the issuance of a presidential decree or an act of Congress, arresting population growth by contraceptives is a very sensitive issue in largely Catholic Philippines.
“While population growth rates declined substantially to well below 2 percent a year in such countries as Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, the rate in the Philippines hardly changed; it is still at a high level of 2.3 percent a year,” Balisacan said. Rice self-sufficiency
Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that the country could not attain rice self-sufficiency.
In fact, the government’s target for attaining rice self-sufficiency is just three to four years away, and is not an impossible dream. Frisco Malabanan, director of the GMA (Ginintuang Masaganang Ani) Rice Program, said a 95-percent self-sufficiency in rice is targeted in 2009 or 2010. Today, the country’s rice self-sufficiency is already about 90 percent.
Among the reasons why the country can achieve rice self-sufficiency is the availability of viable technologies that can improve rice yields, and the country’s hosting PhilRice and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
Of the many available “modern” rice-growing technologies in the Philippines, hybrid and certified seeds are fast gaining popularity over inbred varieties.
On hybrid seeds, Malabanan said about 300,000 hectares of rice farms now use hybrid seeds, while the use of genetically modified rice seeds is still “under study.”
Noel Mamicpic, vice-president of hybrid rice producer SL Agritech Corp., said if the total area planted to hybrid rice reaches 800,000 hectares, that will increase local rice production by 3 million metric tons, enough to negate the need to import rice. The only disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that the mature plants cannot be sourced for planting materials, unlike certified or in-bred seeds.
Certified seeds can boost rice yields from 20 percent to 30 percent.
Besides propagating hybrid and certified seeds, the Agriculture department is set to jumpstart a program that will reduce chemical fertilizer use in rice farms by 50 percent, through the use of compost, bio-fertilizers and seed inoculants. This protocol can also increase yields from 30 percent to 50 percent.
That program, called Tamang Abono, belies the claims of critics who accuse Agriculture of favoring chemical farming.
Likewise, PhilRice and IRRI are collaborating on rice varieties that can withstand submergence in water for at least two weeks.
The PhilRice’s website says scientists from both rice-research institutes are also identifying rice varieties that can “either avoid, tolerate or resist heat stress.”
The experiments of PhilRice and IRRI on water- and heat-tolerant rice-varieties address the possible impact of climate change on rice production.
The good news is the techno-demo rice farms of the Agriculture department using the various technologies to increase production are yielding between 5 to 6 metric tons of palay per hectare, per cropping. There is even a farmer in Nueva Ecija whose farm hit a record 17 metric tons per hectare, per cropping using hybrid seeds.
Higher levels of rice production could make rice farming a more profitable venture, which will stop farmers from shifting to other crops, particularly biofuels.
Better rice production will also make farmers a more creditworthy, viable borrower for banks and financial institutions.
In a forum, Agriculture Secretary Arturo Yap said the present crisis being faced by the country holds many opportunities for farmers. “Facing these grave threats gives the golden opportunities for farmers to better their incomes,” Yap said.
This remains to be seen. But President Gloria Arroyo’s positive response to the present rice crisis, and her promise of releasing billions to support the rice industry and other agricultural activities and launching the FIELDS programs, is laudable. FIELDS stands for what the government aims to provide farmers: fertilizer, irrigation, extension and education, loan and insurance, dryers and other post-harvest facilities, and seeds.
While those developments are good news for rice farmers, the specter of the fertilizer scam and the recently uncovered swine scam casts a doubt if government is serious in implementing programs without graft or corruption.
However, if much of the large funds released by the President to support rice production is spent as intended, then rice self-sufficiency can be attained. Besides, much of the technology to improve rice yields is readily available, and the unabated conversion of agricultural lands can be stopped by a presidential action.
Balisacan said, “To win the war against chronic food insecurity and poverty, government must put its resources where its mouth is. It must invest in agriculture and rural development and must improve governance relating to it and the rest of the economy.