Looming food crisis
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - August 30, 2019 - 12:00am

Global population is expected to reach as high as 11 billion by 2100 from about 7.6 billion in 2018, which with rising income and urbanization, will put a severe strain on food supplies. Compounding this challenge will be growing competition for natural resources, rapid technological change, volatile markets and climate change.

How should governments respond to such near-existential challenge? APEC Food Security ministers meeting in Puerto Varas in Chile have put forward a statement outlining their commitment to achieve food security through fostering sustainable food systems, embracing technology, a well functioning agriculture and food trade system, and strengthening rural development.

Sustainable food systems involve improving productivity, reducing food loss and waste, ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of water, land and marine ecosystems and preserving biodiversity. The application of digital technology and new business models — the so-called “smart agriculture” — will have profound positive impact up and down the food value chain from growing to processing and distribution. It is up to governments to create the regulatory ecosystem to encourage the development and adoption of such technology which would require digital economy-type infrastructure, development of applications and training of both providers and users. This is the exact same recipe for Industrial Revolution 4.0.

One interesting proposal that has come up from the private sector is the popularization of mobile Internet for agriculture application. With a usage of almost 70 percent of population in the APEC region, mobile devices provide a ready-made platform for education and training, information sharing, and e-commerce for the rural areas.

There are twin threats to our marine resources — Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and marine debris — particularly plastics. The ministers recognized the importance of managing fishery resources which provide nearly 22 percent of the average per capita animal protein intake for the APEC region.  In this regard, they voiced support for efforts to combat IUU and for a global and multidisciplinary approach to dealing with marine debris. The destructive fishing employed by Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea in their search for giant clams and high value, but endangered fish species, would fall under unregulated fishing.

The Philippines is ranked the third biggest marine polluter in the world after China and Indonesia, if only to emphasize the point that we have a big role to play in marine conservation simply by addressing how we deal with garbage handling and disposal in addition to encouraging companies to develop alternative non-polluting packaging.

(Antonio Basilio, director of ABAC International Secretariat was at the recently concluded APEC Food Security Meeting and above is his account.) 

‘Food Security stupid – not self-sufficiency’

At the end of the day, despite the productivity gains from applying new technology, in many parts of the world (particularly countries with large population), agriculture alone will not create adequate economic activity to improve the status of rural people. Declining areas of available farm land, climatic conditions and globalization will put a limit on food production and therefore on income generated.

It will require a change of mindset on how food security can be achieved. To many countries — the Philippines included — that has equated to food self-sufficiency. Produce as much as you can and limit dependency on imports from other countries. As anecdotal and statistical evidence have shown, the pursuit of the holy grail of self-sufficiency has proven fruitless and has instead led to high consumer prices, shortages, and a bias towards the urban consumers at the expense of the rural producers. Not surprisingly, poverty remains prevalent in the rural areas. In economic lingo, such populist but unsustainable approach to food security has led to inefficient and environmentally harmful food production and processing. Food security, therefore, must be approached from the standpoint of providing access to and the means to consume stable and affordable food supply for its population. Instead of spending resources to prop up inefficient production and surrounding them with high tariffs, these would be better spent elsewhere to boost a farmer’s income through higher value commodities and other non-farm income sources.

Needless to say, this would only work if agriculture and food trade and investment regime are open and competitive.

This is the approach to food security that agriculture Secretary William Dar has been preaching and which he said he will apply as he begins his tenure as the new DA head. Rural development will be the key component of his approach. In addition to applying new technology and innovation, he aims to foster “agripreneurship” which combines agriculture with entrepreneurship, to enable farmers to bolster their income and savings by moving up the value chain in the agricultural market and engaging in non-farming, but related activities like eco-tourism. As he was quoted in an interview. “When agricultural development progresses, through modernizing and good governance, the Philippines can begin to have food that is sufficient and accessible to everyone. When workers in the agri industry are well-compensated and gain purchasing power, they are able to buy food and at the same time sufficient food supplies will drive prices down.”

This mirrors the approach that the Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF) has taken in its public rural health care program. The strategy they have pursued is to empower local government officials through training and technical assistance to take ownership of their rural health program. As they move on to address nutritional deficiencies, ZFF has realized from experience that generating livelihood opportunities provides a firm foundation for nutrition and health care in rural communities. Empowering local government and the rural communities to achieve better nutritional outcomes will be guiding ZFF as it pursues its new initiatives on nutrition with its international partners. 

Jaime Bautista of PAL

The Carlos P. Romulo Foundation would like to express our profound gratitude for his sustained support of our conferences related to issues affecting national concerns. His outstanding performance enhancing the international prestige and stature of PAL deserves recognition from all of us.

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