Monday, March 24, 2008

Averting the impending rice shortage

This is my column today.

Three separate incidents that happened last week, all involving family members, validated to me on a very personal level the reality of an impending rice shortage in this country.

As background information, let me share that my father is a farmer who tends to a few hectares of rice fields in the family’s farm in Leyte. We’re not rich, but we’ve never bought rice for the family’s consumption as the farm has always yielded more than enough supply for the family even after selling off a large part of the harvest.

It therefore came as a major surprise to me when a sister intimated over the phone last week that she and her family had been buying rice since last month. Apparently, her stock from the last harvest has not been enough to tide over the family until the next harvest. And to make matters worse, she feared that the heavy rains that have plagued Eastern Visayas in the last two months have affected this season’s crop. The yield from this season’s harvest will be less compared to last season’s. She said that her situation was not unique as most people she knew—all of them rice farmers—had also been buying rice.

No wonder my own mother has been bugging me, also since last week, for a loan to be used as additional capital for her latest business venture which involves advancing money to rice farmers to tide them over until their harvest sometime in the next few weeks. She said the demand was very high as local traders have been scrambling all over themselves offering advance money to rice farmers in our place for their harvest.

Traders smell a rice shortage and are cornering up a large part of this season’s harvest. I smell trouble. Big trouble. Traders seem bent on hoarding this season’s harvest. A shortage is indeed in the offing.

This set-up offers a lifeline to rice farmers today but it also puts them at risk of not having enough stocks for their own family’s consumption in the coming months. Like I said, the quality of this season’s produce has been greatly affected by the La Niña and the El Niño phenomena. Heavy rains have plagued some parts of the country; a lingering drought continues to be felt in other parts. Whatever little produce rice farmers are able to come up with in the next few weeks has already been pledged to and paid for by traders, leaving them no choice but to honor their commitments at the risk of not having enough for their own family’s needs. This translates into hunger in the next few months.

As if to further validate this development, the National Food Authority has issued an appeal to farmers to sell their produce to the agency to avert an anticipated rice crisis. The government agency has even increased its buying price for palay and has started offering incentives to farmers to lure them into selling their produce directly to the agency. But the government, at least according to family members, is no match to wily traders who don’t wait for farmers to come to them but rather go to the fields to directly negotiate with the farmers, cash in hand.

Thus, NFA Administrator Jessup Navarro’s assurance that the impending rice shortage will be solved by this summer’s rice harvest is, at best, wishful thinking.
Obviously, greed is aggravating the problem.

My elder sister who lives in Caloocan City came to the house over the Holy Week to inquire whether I knew anybody in the NFA. She told me that the demand for NFA rice was so huge that the rice vendors in her area were hard put meeting the need. According to her, a neighbor who sells NFA rice is able to dispose of her allotment all within 24 hours. Apparently, many rice vendors have been bitten by the greed virus and are packaging and selling NFA rice at commercial prices. She now wants to distribute NFA rice and help people in her area get access to NFA rice at the prescribed price.

Robert Zeigler, who heads the International Rice Research Institute at Los Baños, issued the dire warning last week. He said it simply: “We have a crisis brewing in rice supply.” It’s a global problem and the Philippines, being one of the biggest importers of rice in the world, is poised to suffer the brunt of the crisis.

Some senators have also sounded the alarm. But as usual, our senators seem unable to come up with something a little more constructive. Senate President Manny Villar said that he would direct “the committees on agriculture and food and the accountability of public officers and investigations [Blue Ribbon] to conduct an inquiry regarding the reported rice crisis and rice cartel that influences price spikes.” Yeah, we face a crisis of major proportions and the Senate wants to conduct another investigation as if it would do the trick!

I can already see it: Senators are looking for someone to pin the blame on. Perhaps it should summon to the Senate God Himself for casting the curse of global warming upon all of us.

The government has so far refused to admit that a rice crisis was in the offing. Of course. There’s no point in inciting panic among people. But reports indicate that the President herself has already made an unprecedented call to Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, requesting that he promise to supply a specific quantity of rice. Reports said that the Vietnamese prime minister could only commit half of the requested guaranteed supply. Where shall we get the shortfall?

Of course it is disheartening that we have to seek help from our neighbors for something so basic as the “stuff of life” and particularly since we should be able to produce enough rice for our own needs. But a confluence of factors has put us in this situation today. It is not the time to look for someone to blame. What we need are effective courses of actions that balance short-term concerns with long-term solutions.

But it is definitely not the time for half-baked solutions such as asking people to cut down on their rice intake. I don’t know what Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap’s diet is like, but his advice for people to eat “half a cup of rice instead of one cup” comes across as not only insensitive but downright unrealistic. Oh I know, eating less rice is good advice for those wanting to shed off excess poundage, but prescribing a diet for the hungry hardly comes across as sound advice.

In the short term, the government must make sure that there is adequate supply of rice and that greedy traders do not take advantage of the situation through cartelization. Hopefully, this administration does not owe political debts to big-time traders enough to tolerate their greed.

In the long term, it is time to bring rice production technology up to speed with the rest of the world. It is a shame that we host the International Rice Research Institute and not be able to use the same technology that our neighbors are using to double, even quadruple rice production. We also need to look into maximizing the use of available farmlands for rice production. Obviously, we need to put in place a master plan to balance industrial development with agricultural production as many farmlands are already being transformed into industrial sites.

A rice crisis is the kind of problem this country needs like a bullet in the head.

3 comments:

benign0 said...

According to the IRRI, the Filipino farmer still produces the highest rice crop yield in southeast Asia -- almost twice that of Thailand (from which the Philippines imports rice).

Unfortunately, our population has grown faster than total production could keep up with (owing to limitations in land allocated to rice cultivation).

The Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines is the single biggest factor accountable for this horrific increase in our population.

It's up to today's crop of Young Filipinos to put a stop to the medieval primitivist mindsets of a generation of Pinoys that squandered the opportunities served to the Philippines on a silver platter back in the late 1940's and through the 1950's and 60's.

Speaking of Pinoy youth, have you seen my latest YouTube video? :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Bong!
I couldn't resist making a response to this blog of yours because it is also so close to home. My husband and myself are researchers from UP Los Banos, the premier agriculture university in the country and next door neighbor to IRRI. Incidentally, the hubby is on leave from UPLB and is doing consultancy work for one of the programs of IRRI, while I am doing my dissertation thru an affiliate scholarship with IRRI. We are that close to the scene. To be fair to IRRI and our government's PhilRice they have been doing world class research to come up with technologies to answer ever emerging production problems. Let me also say that IRRI is hugely mandated to do it for all rice producing countries in the world, while our PhilRice is focused on the country. Scientists from both institutions, the best in the world, are as frustrated as we are of the crisis which is caused by a myriad of factors among them that which we can't control(like the climate) and that which we could (like technology and its transfer, and government policy). The work of these research instns. and the academe like UPLB (despite the lack of govt support)is up to production of appropriate technologies, the transfer of these are mandated to be done thru government agencies. And usually that is where we become bogged down, add to this policy and its implementation (or non-implementation), and the ever unscrupulous middlemen-traders who hold our farmers in vicious strangle. We can only wring our hands in frustration. This crisis wasn't a surprise, many scientists have been talking about the decline in rice yields since it was observed in the 80's after 2 decades of growth. Not too many were listening, much like what happened with the warnings on global warming. Given that, this is no time for senate investigations, by the time they are finished our rice stocks are long gone. The people who suggest this deserve to be shot! This is the time for intelligent discussions and immediate action. And given the character of these people in government who should be discussing and acting, one can't help but be really really worried.
Good day.--MommyJo

Anonymous said...

Hi Sir Bong
My heart bleeds just last week. I went to Tacloban City and at Sagkahan market I saw men, women & even children in line. I thought there was a concert or a show at 3:00pm in the market area so I asked what was the long line & wait for -- under the scourging heat of the sun? The man told me they waited for their turn of NFA rice sold on ration. One kilogram for every household. WHAT????!!!! Guilt was all over me---(as you progress reading my comment then you will know why the GUILT). Yes, I know of the rice shortage & crisis as seen on tv, heard on radio & read in the newspaper but I wasn't really affected by it until I saw what was really happening.
Admittingly, the family business is RICE. Financing farmers, rice mill and trading. I love it everyday when the price of the HUMAY (palay) went up twice a day -- it would mean more profit for the farmers and the traders. I love it more when the rice be bought at 1250 pesos per sack (49kgs) and be shipped to Cebu at 1450 and even 1600 per bag. What a profit! And yes, shame on me I realized I am one of those greedy ones who take advantage of the situation. The selfsih one who doesn't think of the many in need but only to gain & profit the most. Yes, that sight in Sagkahan market opened my eyes that crisis is really happening & that I should do what is fair and not be greedy.
Hope to meet you Sir Bong in one of your trips or vacation in Leyte. I do business in Abuyog & other parts of Leyte.
God bless!