We are wasting rice
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - November 21, 2018 - 12:00am

For a country that can’t seem to grow enough rice to feed everyone, we are also wasting quite a large amount of it. Waste comes not just in all the rice we see thrown out in restaurants after we fail to fully consume what we ordered. But quite a bit of rice is wasted even before it gets cooked.

According to Sen. Ralph Recto, “we can forego the need to import rice, if we can lessen by just one-third our post-harvest losses.” That’s all the rice farmers lose because they don’t have adequate rice drying facilities among others.

Anyone who has driven through rural highways know that in many areas, only half of the road is usable because farmers dry their palay on the other half. That is a very inefficient way of doing it and one can imagine the amount of rice grains they lose in the process.

According to Sen. Recto, an estimated 17 percent of the country’s yearly palay (unhusked rice) yield is lost to absent or poor post-harvest facilities and practices, resulting in a wastage of about two and a half million metric tons of rice. That is enough to meet the annual needs of 12 million Filipinos or nearly the population of Metro Manila, Recto said.

We are talking not just of palay drying, but also other post harvesting facilities to include threshing, drying, milling and storage. Actually, even harvesting methods can stand a lot of modernization too, to avoid losses.

According to Sen. Recto, a 2010 government study pegged at 4.3 percent the amount of palay wasted during harvest, and 5.5 percent during milling. Other causes are drying (5.9 percent), and storage (0.8 percent).

“Measured against the 2017 harvest of 19.28 million metric tons, then some 3.8 million metric tons of palay were wasted during the processing chain, from harvest to storage,” Recto said.

Rolando Dy, an agri-business specialist at the University of Asia and the Pacific agrees, saying that with combine harvesters, losses can be reduced to a minimum. Harvest loss is particularly high in the wet season.

But Dy also observed that post harvest losses cannot be totally eradicated. “Vietnam has post harvest losses of about 13 percent; Japan, a modern rice producer, has post harvest loss of about five percent.”

Dy explains that our “high milling loss is due to low palay-to-rice recovery due to old rice mills. The average recovery is only 60 percent. Modern mills can do 65 to 70 percent.

Rice millers, Dy observed, are not investing due to the poor investment environment. Add to that the many palay varieties delivered by farmers: short, medium, or long grains. Just sticking to few varieties will enhance palay-to-mill recoveries.

Mechanized drying, especially during the wet season, can remedy some losses. But this needs scale. Most of these problems can be addressed by farm consolidation as in the Piddig, Ilocos Norte model, Dy pointed out.

Rep. Arthur Yap, a former agriculture secretary, told me that “one immediate strategy in the post harvest area is to address the 15 to 17 percent post harvest losses because we lack farm to market roads (about 15,000 km in the rural hinterlands), drying facilities and warehouses.

“Assuming we address just half of that, here is the back of envelope computations: assuming a 19 million metric ton national harvest, that would translate to 1.425 million metric tons of palay or 926,250 MT of milled rice. That is about 40 to 50 percent of the national rice import volume.”

Sen. Recto wants the proceeds from duties collected under the rice tariffication regime allocated for the improvement of post-harvest facilities like dryers to save 1/6th of the national palay output lost to poor after-harvest handling.

But Rep. Yap believes we need simultaneous strategies at the front end production area in our effort to limit the need for rice importation. For example, he cited the use of certified and hybrid seeds as against farmers’ home saved seeds.

Certified seeds, the congressman pointed out, could increase production to six tons per hectare, while hybrid seeds can average eight tons per hectare. Total rice lands are two million hectares nationally. The national average yield is merely four tons per hectare.

The former agriculture secretary, however, clarified that while seeds could boost production, the kicker is the right combination of inputs and water at the right time of the crop’s growth. “If the farmer puts enough fertilizers with the correct soil and water management, there will be another 20 percent boost in production yield.”

Rep. Yap explains: “So if we have two million hectares per cropping and four million hectares for two croppings, an incremental one ton per hectare translates to four million additional tons of rice per year.

“Even with 15 percent losses, that comes out to 3.4 million metric tons of paddy or conservatively two million metric tons of milled rice. That is a significant portion of the national import volume. Of course, this means continuous spending for the repair of irrigation facilities…”

In end, the former agriculture secretary also blames lack of financing as a major problem for farmers. Agriculture as a sector remains unbankable, Rep. Yap observed. “That’s because of a poor crop insurance system, a weak rural guarantee program, and the absence of reformed warehouse receipts program.”

So the problem is more complicated than the absence of good post harvest facilities. Sen. Recto made a good point, but not nearly enough if the objective is to minimize rice importation.

I guess legislators will have to understand why the Agri-Agra Law doesn’t work and banks would rather pay the penalty of non-compliance than lend to farmers. Also, legislators must have the guts to declare the Agrarian Reform Law a failure and do something better.

In the meantime, rice self sufficiency, which we are constantly promised, remains a dream. We can do it, but we must forget politics and self interest first.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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