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Covid-19, China river grab can cause rice shortage

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - March 4, 2020 - 12:00am

From the Covid-19 outbreak Filipinos must learn not only personal hygiene. There are also lessons in food security and agricultural strategy. Like, at the onset farm-less Singapore and Hong Kong had contemplated total lockdowns of trade and tourism with Covid-19 epicenter China. But they couldn’t do it. Their populations would have starved, as bulk of their food imports come from mainland China. In that light, the Philippines is lucky that Covid-19 swiftly was contained in Vietnam and Thailand. Had those neighboring agricultural powers been infected, Manila would have closed trade for the duration. Had it been the other way around, with the Philippines contaminated, Vietnam and Thailand would have closed their borders to Philippine trade. Woe to Filipinos, for we overly depend on them for 1.2 million tons of rice imports per year. Think hyperinflation, even food riots arising from prolonged shortage of the staple.

Threat of sudden no supply of rice from Vietnam and Thailand looms not only from pandemic. There are also regional flashpoints. China has been taking control of the Mekong River that irrigates rice lands of Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. Dams are being built across the river China-side and gunboats dispatched downstream all the way to Myanmar and Laos. Beijing’s communist rulers act as if China alone owns the natural resource. Water levels were at record lows in the past decade. Farmers in ASEAN are getting worried. Filipinos who have visited Hanoi marvel that a four- or five-course restaurant meal costs only P200 per head. The Mekong Delta provides, aside from rice, cheap river fish, crustaceans, and vegetables. When China grabs the mighty river like it did reefs in the South and East China Seas, Vietnam and Thailand would suffer water and food shortage. Conserving their stocks, rice exports to the Philippines would stop.

Relatedly, China has imposed a ten-year fishing ban on its mighty Yangtze River. To enforce it, 180,000 fishing boats will be destroyed, confiscated or diverted. The nearest alternative fish supply is the West Philippine Sea, where Chinese freely have been poaching since the 2000s. Expect intensified Chinese fishing militia incursions in Philippine territorial waters and 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Obviously Philippine dependence on rice and other food imports has to end fast. Politicians and bureaucrats need to act, instead of paying lip service to farm development. More and more farms are being converted into residential subdivisions. The rest are giving way to pollutive industries, like steel mills that should be relocated to smaller islands. Less and less Filipinos are farming rice. The income is simply too low, and government support comes in spurts. Farm-gate prices of palay (un-husked rice) during the past four harvests fell below the production cost of P12-P15 per kilo. Food authorities kept faking news that it was procuring from farmers at P17-P22 per kilo, as national buffer stock. It took a Senate inquiry to unravel the truth. Food authorities were busy as always with hundred-million-peso commissions from P22-billion yearly rice imports. In 2008 it was reported that the average age of rice farmers was 50 years old; in 2014 it became 55; today it is 60, and no millennials are replacing them. A P10-billion outright farm grant was allocated in 2019 for farmers to be displaced by rice-import liberalization. But corrupt, incompetent officials did not prepare the disbursements in the form of fertilizer and pesticide price cuts, pump irrigation fuel subsidies, and farm-to-market assistance. Why? Because no kickback was to be made from helping farmers.

Basic solutions have long been proposed. Supply of rice and other basic foods – milk, eggs, chicken, pork, beef, fish and vegetables need to be multiplied. It’s what will bring down consumer prices and inflation. The other week the Dept. of Agriculture issued suggested retail prices for chicken, pork, fish, onion, garlic, and other foodstuffs. Yet public market rates remained double the SRPs. Retailers nationwide simply said the SRPs were lower than the “puhunan,” or pass-on rates to them from wholesalers. SRP for chicken was P130 a kilo, yet farm-gate price was already P80, still to be slaughtered, dressed, then distributed to market tinderas, each stage with normal 20-percent markups. SRP for cage-cultured bangus was P162 per kilo but farm-gate already was P115, yet to be harvested, ice-packed, and transported, again each with markups. SRP for pond-cultured tilapia was P120 a kilo, yet farm-gate already was P103 due to shortage, as Taal Lake supply dropped from the pre-volcanic eruption level of P80. (Sea pen bangus and in-land pond tilapia are P10 less per kilo, farm-gate.) The DA warned of 15-year prison terms for price cartelists. Yet the only way to bust manipulators is to boost the supply.

Rice production needs boosting. In planting there are need for irrigation by varied methods and expanses, high-yield seedling varieties, fertilizer and pesticide subsidies, and mechanization. In harvesting, more machineries like threshers, driers, and trucks, plus warehouses. In milling, modern facilities to improve output, from measly 50 percent domestically, to Vietnam and Thailand level of 65 percent.

Even consumers need to be educated and accustomed to eat brown rice instead of double-milled white rice. The latter has no nutritional value, only heft, the excess of which can lead to diabetes. The former retains basic vitamins and minerals, and takes less to sate the diner. Thus cheaper in the end for the Filipino farmer to produce and consumer to procure. Win-win, as they say.

From continuous rice imports it’s only lose-lose: Filipino farmers lose up front to cheap competition from Mekong-grown rice, while consumers lose in the end when there are no more domestic rice harvests and the importers start taking advantage.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives: www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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