Adapt or perish
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 22, 2019 - 12:00am

Buying rice from my suki wholesale supplier recently, I noticed two things. One is that all the types of rice are now classified as either regular or well milled, but the product tags still bear the names of the varieties or brands, with corresponding price differences.

The second noteworthy development is that the wholesaler now sells imported well-milled rice from Thailand, at a significantly lower price than a comparable local variety.

Out of loyalty to our very own, I bought the local one. But I’m sure the price difference will be a decisive factor for other consumers, especially commercial establishments.

Local producers are projecting a harvest of 19 million metric tons of rice this year – enough, they say, to meet about 95 percent of national demand. But they will have to bring down prices if they want to compete with a flood of cheaper imports. With profit margins shrinking as a result, we could see more people leaving rice farming.

As it is, younger generations of Filipinos no longer want to go into rice farming because of the poor returns. The Ifugao Rice Terraces are suffering more from neglect than from the giant worms eroding the paddies.

What will happen to our rice farmers with the enactment of the law that opens the doors to “unli” rice importation?

Local rice producers are warning that the new law spells the death of their industry. Some groups have warned that the New People’s Army is stepping up its recruitment among farmers who will be adversely affected by Republic Act 11203. It would be dangerous to dismiss this story as hype.

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We want cheap rice, but we’re an agricultural country and we also don’t want to kill our local rice producers, especially the marginalized farmers.

So the debates continue over “unli” rice importation. Tariffs are being slapped on the imports, of which about P10 billion a year will go to a fund meant to enhance the competitiveness of local rice farmers.

Farmer Cathy Estavillo, Bantay Bigas spokesperson, says that in reality, only about P5 billion of that amount will go directly to farmers, mostly for agricultural machinery, with only P1 billion for financial support. With 2.7 million farmers nationwide, that amounts to only P370 each. Really, says Estavillo, how much farming competitiveness can that enhance? She says farmers need P50,000 per hectare for planting rice, and the enhancement fund is rather “too late the hero.”

Estavillo faced The Chiefs last Wednesday on Cignal TV’s One News together with Rosendo So, president of Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura or SINAG and Undersecretary Rosemarie Edillon of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

The SINAG head is upbeat about the new law, pointing out that about half of the actual total rice imports last year escaped the payment of tariffs. The rice enhancement fund is also earmarked for specific purposes, he and Edillon said, to prevent diversion or misuse.

Under the new law, rice pricing and supply will be left largely to market forces. Edillon reassures the public that there are still laws on fair trade and competitiveness to prevent overpricing and cartels.

She says NEDA studies have shown that 46 provinces, including Nueva Ecija and Kalinga, are ready for tariffication and can compete with any flood of imported rice.

Edillon explained that the bulk of the enhancement is going to machinery support because studies indicate that mechanized farming helped top rice producers Thailand and Vietnam keep their rice prices low.

While Estavillo says 10 million families depend on subsidized National Food Authority rice, which will no longer be available under the new law, Edillon says the NEDA found that 69 percent of regular NFA rice consumers are not classified as poor. We didn’t get to ask how this was determined.

Only time will tell if the rice fund will go the way of the corruption-tainted fertilizer fund. For now, the short-term impact of the new law is to bring down rice prices, even as local farmers bemoan the threat to their livelihood and the damage to local production. About 1,000 NFA employees also stand to lose their jobs.

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Ramon Sanchez, secretary-general of the NFA employees’ association, told The Chiefs that tariffication is “a band-aid solution” and the country is 94 percent self-sufficient in its staple so there is no reason for “unli” importation. The NFA employees are banding together with local farmers and other stakeholders to challenge the constitutionality of the new law before the Supreme Court.

Estavillo shares those views and is calling for long-term solutions, such as easier access to micro credit. Farmers apparently are still seen as high-risk debtors and credit access is still difficult in banks.

Edillon and Estavillo agree on one issue: the need for a Land Use Act, to identify specific zones for food production and stop the continuing conversion of agricultural lands into mixed-use developments.

Estavillo, however, lamented that the first executive order signed this year by President Duterte was the fast-tracking of such land conversions, from the average of two years to just one month. Edillon clarified that the EO merely aims to cut red tape in the process, and the one month refers only to the period after all the requirements have been submitted.

Edillon also stressed the need for more investments in R&D, especially in adaptive research, to boost rice yields, quality and competitiveness of local varieties even for the export market.

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This is one area that is being overlooked in the debate: the new law also reverses a ban and allows the export of local rice.

Now that exportation is allowed, Edillon says the country can boost production of special rice varieties that fetch top prices in the global market.

The deteriorating rice terraces in Banaue and Bontoc might actually enjoy a revival if their tasty highland rice can be exported as heirloom varieties. We also have brown, black and red rice as well as the genuinely blue-violet pirurutong, the variety that is used for authentic puto bumbong, although many cheat these days and simply use food color to make the popular rice cake. Have the rice certified as organic and the price goes even higher.

Flavors are now being genetically engineered into rice, so we should also be able to produce the more expensive varieties of pandan and jasmine rice, like Thailand.

Perhaps one day the new law will be struck down. For now, however, a new rice regime is being put in place. Ready or not, the local rice industry will have to adapt or perish.

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