FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Whoever inserted the idea we would soon be self-sufficient in rice into President Aquino’s head should now be called to account.

In his earlier SONAs, Aquino kept repeating the lie the country will be self-sufficient in the staple crop by the end of his term. In one speech, he made much about a small exportation of boutique mountain rice. The quantity was too small to matter and was in no way indicative of the state of our agriculture.

Today, we are importing rice in unprecedented quantities. Soon after placing an order for 500,000 tons of rice, a new order for a million more tons of rice will be placed.

Typhoon Lando, that devastated rice lands in Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley provides a convenient excuse to make that importation. I have yet to look at the actual numbers, but it seems the large orders would have been made anyway even if Lando did not happen.

The “official” importation figures are on top of the large volumes of the crop regularly smuggled into our market. For good measure, other agricultural produce such as garlic, onions and chicken parts are smuggled as well to keep the rice in good company.

The US Department of Agriculture, which monitors grains trading worldwide, consistently noted the widening discrepancy between what we “officially” import and what the exporting countries report as having been sold to us. Only systematic and massive smuggling can explain that widening discrepancy.

One CBCP official described our massive importation of rice as “embarrassing.” Loss of face is probably the least of our problems. The deterioration of our agriculture is the real problem that must be addressed.

We have declined from being a major exporter of rice to the world’s biggest importer of the commodity. The sheer size of our importation affects rice prices internationally and creates pressure on supplies. The margin between what our neighbors need for their domestic consumption and what they actually produce is always slim.

Now that we have announced an impending importation of 1.5 million tons of rice, the aggregators abroad must be scampering to hoard the commodity. Because we cannot afford a rice shortage, especially during an election year, we will tend to buy rice at any price. That makes the middlemen (and the corrupt brokers) extremely happy. 

Nothing encourages hoarding and price manipulation more than an official announcement of forthcoming scarcity. We tend to precipitate that at every turn.

The devastation that happened when Lando struck wiped out rice fields and brought farmers deep into debt. The standard government response is to throw money at the farmers, condoning debt and distributing free farm inputs.

The strategic response ought to have been construction of water impoundment structures along the Sierra Madre to destructive minimize flooding and ensure ample fresh water supplies. That was not done.

Instead, in remarks made a few weeks ago, President Aquino touted the (imagined) success of his infrastructure program and said we have run out of space for more infra. He sounded like he was speaking from another planet.

Food Security

I was recently reading with much interest an article from The Diplomat discussing Singapore’s management of its food security.

The city-state imports 90% of its food requirements. It devotes barely 1% of its precious land for agriculture. Singapore imports nearly all of its fresh water requirements from nearby Malaysia. Notwithstanding, food is relatively cheap in this city.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, in its recent Global Food Security Index, ranked Singapore the second most food secure country in the world. In first place, expectedly, is the US.

Singapore surprisingly ranks much higher in food security than some of the major food exporting economies. Malaysia, form where Singapore sources much of its food, ranks 34th. Brazil ranks 36th. Australia, which has mechanized its farms and has abundant land to spare, ranks 9th.

The Global Food Security Index considers the following factors in its ranking: 1) affordability; 2) availability; and, 3) quality and safety. Singapore ranks 1st, 11th and 13th respectively on these measures. This despite the city-state importing the bulk of its food needs.

The article from The Diplomat gives credit to the work of a low-key agency, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA). Like the rest of the Singaporean government, this agency is presumably staffed by professionals who are the best among their peers. Like the rest of the Singaporean bureaucracy, it is neither corrupt nor lazy.

Early on, the AVA recognized there is a whale of a difference between food self-sufficiency and food security. Singapore, an economy heavily dependent on trade, could not have aspired for food self-sufficiency. That would be utterly stupid.

Instead, following its Food Security Roadmap, the AVA worked to diversify Singapore’s food sourcing in order to minimize vulnerability like natural calamities or political uncertainties in the food exporting economies. Recently, a Sino-Singaporean food zone was established in Jilin, China. The food zone assured Singapore a disease-free source of pork.

To build resilience against supply disruptions, the AVA has tried to increase domestic food production through the provision of the Food Fund. This encouraged investments in new farming techniques such as hydroponics that, over the last 10 years contributed to a 30% increase in domestic vegetable production.

Several times in the past, I lectured batches of fresh Singaporean “cadets” – top college graduates recruited to serve in the bureaucracy. They are sent around the ASEAN region to study how governments work (or not).

To return the favor, I suggest we send our redeemable DA career officials to the AVA for reeducation. Never mind the useless politicians routinely appointed to head our vital agriculture agencies.


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