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Eradicating hunger: Pangilinan’s challenge

Among the reasons why Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala should immediately tender his irrevocable resignation, what stands out is his failure to meet his commitment that, under his watch, the Philippines will achieve self sufficiency in rice by 2013. Not only has the target date passed but there is also negligible chance of rice self sufficiency this year. The second reason is that Alcala has failed to clean up the agencies that were under him.

There will always be excuses and reasons for failures to meet targets. The most common excuse is force majeure. But proper planning and implementation takes into account unforeseen events. In any basic management course, we are taught that managers and leaders are evaluated on the basis of Results and not Effort.

Also, I do not agree with Alcala that two heads are better than one. In fact, I hold to the saying that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” It is also very revealing that one of the mandates of Kiko Pangilinan is to cleanse the agencies assigned to him, especially the National Food Authority (NFA) and the National Irrigation Administration (NIA).

P-Noy said that he has personally ordered a certain agency investigated for corruption, which apparently was done in a callous manner because the guilty parties believed they were untouchable. This agency is allegedly the National Irrigation Administration. Then in a recent television interview, Pangilinan said he intends to investigate alleged anomalous irrigation projects. These remarks can only mean that Alcala does not have the capability to clean up these agencies that used to be under his supervision. In fact, one interpretation is that corruption was allowed to resurface under the watch of Alcala.

Call it delicadeza or command responsibility. After all these public statements, surely Alcala should get the message that it is time to resign.

Food czar Pangilinan should, however, realize that cleaning up the agencies is not his primary goal. The real goal is to ensure food sufficiency in this country, so no one needs to go hungry. And in the Philippines, food means rice. This means that the vision should be that even the poorest of the poor will have the opportunity to have rice meals three times a day.

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Rice is not just the basic food. In Asian societies rice is the meal and viands are included just to add taste or flavors to the rice to make it more appetizing. That is why the Economist magazine recently wrote that rice plays a role in Asian societies hard for outsiders to appreciate. For example Toyota means “bountiful rice yield” and Honda means “main rice field.”

In most of these farm areas, nothing will grow with the same productivity. If there is a shortage of rice, then there will be problems with everything. If there is shortage, this will easily translate into political problems leading to instability. This is the reason why Asian governments will do whatever they can to ensure that they have enough rice.

If there is a potential rice shortage in a huge country like India, Indonesia or China, these countries will take extreme measures such as cornering international rice markets or subsidizing rice imports that will lead to increased prices of rice from exporting countries. If the Philippines is not self sufficient in rice, then this country could face the prospect of experiencing a rice shortage or allowing rice prices to again go way up.

This means that food security is a primary strategic objective for this country. And this food security really depends on rice self sufficiency.

“Without new seeds, [rice ]yields will decline further. Global warming will tend to push harvests down: higher night time temperatures are associated with lower yields. The richest rice growing areas in the world are deltas of Asia’s great rivers such as the Mekong, Brahmaputra and Irawaddy; they are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased salinity which kills rice. The plant uses two to three times as much water as other cereals largely for levelling the paddies; the plant itself consumes no more than wheat or maize, but water is scarce everywhere. And each year the spread of Asian cities converts millions of acres of good rice growing land into buildings and roads.”

The necessity of high volumes of water for rice production gives an advantage to countries where there are major rivers like in India, Thailand and Vietnam. In this regard, the Philippines is at a disadvantage because we do not have a big river and our country is an archipelago. This situation has made irrigation a critical factor. Without irrigation, farmlands become dependent on rain water.

Irrigated lands can produce yields as high as five to six tons a hectare. Rice lands that are dependent on rain water have a much lower yield – between one and two and half tons per hectare. Furthermore, these lands are prone to drought and floods.

But there are rays of hope for another green revolution. The biggest news, for the flood prone Philippines, is that there is a new variety of rice seedlings which are flood resistant. The most exciting news is that this revolutionary seed has been developed by scientists in the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This particular development is actually the lead story in the recent Economist supplement “Briefing: The new green revolution.”

Political maverick turned farmer turned food czar Kiko Pangilinan has the opportunity to be a major contributor to this government’s vision of eradicating hunger and ensuring inclusive growth that will give every Filipino the opportunity for a life of human dignity.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

 

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