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Business

Ending food insecurity

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

Countries big and small are taking food security seriously these days. Singapore, for example, given its land scarcity and population density, has been leaning heavily on indoor gardening technologies to decrease its dependence on imported food.

Growing crops vertically and indoors has proven to be a cost-effective way to produce food that can be 300 to 400 percent more productive than field farming, according to some proponents. While still limited to leafy vegetable growing, as well as tomatoes and herbs, indoor farming holds promise in a world that is increasingly becoming food insecure.

Nations’ quest for food security has opened a floodgate of new ideas that provide alternative solutions to a host of more complex problems like infestation, drought, salt-water intrusion, desertification, and many more.

Living in the Philippines where land and water resources are far better than countries in sub-Saharan Africa or concrete jungles like Hong Kong makes one feel blessed, but at the same time, evokes exasperation at how little we have done as a nation to capitalize on what is available to us.

Our country may not have hectares upon hectares of contiguous land conducive to large-scale farming, but the science in agriculture now provides answers that go beyond traditional farming, fishing, and livestock growing knowledge. We must capitalize on these while adapting to our unique environmental conditions to improve food security.

Rice law

We’re seeing how our small rice farmers need to work together to achieve better harvests from the land while raising their incomes. Given the limited window of opportunity that the 2019 Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) gives to rice farmers, all the safety nets made available through the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) must be utilized well.

RTL, despite what critics like to say, still offers better opportunities for our rice farmers. The P10 billion allocated yearly through the RCEF has allowed much needed funds to acquire new modern farming implements, better seeds, credit sources, and technical and skills development programs.

More importantly, the RTL helped remove an old system where the monopoly of the government’s National Food Authority on rice buying and price setting, and the removal of quantitative restrictions on rice importation continuously contributed to rice insecurity.

By allowing relatively free market forces, including rice importation at a high 35-percent tariff (to provide funding for the RCEF), the contribution of rice to the country’s inflation levels had dropped to below zero even during the worst of the pandemic period.

The money coming from the RCEF must ensure that the benefits accruing our rice farmers will be sustained even after the funding ends in 2025. With three more years to go, the Department of Agriculture must prepare local government units to give agriculture more focused direction and assistance.

Other agri sectors

The country will need improved laws in other sectors of agriculture. Too little attention has been given to other farm products like fruit and vegetable growing. The private sector has more often taken the initiative in the past, but it needs better laws to help raise productivity.

The proposed National Land Use Act and Water Use Act have long been pending in Congress, and its ultimate passage into law may bring about step changes in the growth of other land farming sectors, and ultimately contribute to establishing a more stable supply system of farm products to the market.

The fisheries sector, likewise, will need assistance. Small fishers in municipal waters require protection to put a stop to their dwindling daily catch. On the other hand, the more organized and bigger fishing vessels that go further away from the shore want new fishing grounds to be opened.

Aquaculture is an area that could provide the country with alternative sources of fish, but as inland fishers complain, current laws and regulations are not conducive to attracting investments that could be sizeable given the need for more sophisticated operations and support mechanisms.

Then there is our livestock and poultry sector, which has progressively become a source of protein for a growing number of Filipinos who can afford to allocate more pesos in their household food and dining out budgets. Last year’s escalated inflation levels because of the large-scale culling of pigs affected by the African swine fever (ASF) led to shortages and to high prices of even other protein-rich foods like chicken and fish.

Much more can be done to bring down the price of locally grown pork and chicken, which actually cost more when compared to imports if all tariff barriers were removed.

Protectionism has its good and bad points, and in a world where supply chains will be threatened by radical climactic changes, the key is to take advantage of what trade barriers can offer, especially when beneficial to the greater population, but always without losing sight of the need to be more self-reliant on food.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar estimates that the country needs to allocate thrice what it provides for agriculture next year if the goal of food security is to be taken seriously. Currently, the department’s budget is at P85.5 billion.

It is true that agriculture has been allotted so much less than what it needs, not only to support ongoing projects, but also to prepare for a future where Filipinos can be assured of food for their tables at affordable prices, and with reliability in supply.

A bigger budget will definitely help, but for desired changes to actually come to fruition, government must be clear on the path it needs to achieve these.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]m. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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