Averting rice crisis permanently

PERCEPTIONS - Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

Whether or not the price cap on rice is a sound policy is the wrong debate. At best, as the President himself explained, this is temporary. Meaning, the intention is to solve the short-term pressure being felt by consumers in availing of our staple food.

We must address the deeper causes on why we are perennially threatened by inadequate rice supply and its increasing prices. The larger concern is food security itself, which is vital in any country’s stability.

We must have the mastery on how to contain the looming crisis that can adversely affect the perception on the government’s ability to deliver the most gut concern of the masses. Food on the table is the most basic yet potentially the most sensitive gut issue, especially to the more than 20 million Filipinos who live in extreme poverty.

The fundamental challenge in resolving the issue on rice, plus other agricultural products, is the choice between courageously adapting long-term solutions or desperately embracing short-term solutions. I used courage in relation to long-term solutions because the needed solutions here entail sacrifices such as possible higher prices today in exchange for a more stable supply in the future. This can also demand allotting bigger portions of our national budget to finance engineering solutions in building a robust agricultural infrastructure to irrigate our available lands, connect the farms to the market and encourage the expansion of strategic agro-industrial complexes that can gear towards competing in the international market.

Truth is, it is extremely urgent to save our farmers. For many decades, being a farmer is indeed synonymous to being poor, or extremely poor.  As I explained in my previous columns, farmers are deprived of the access to good nutrition, quality education, decent housing and even the most essential human dignity because of the material deprivations caused by low earnings. A farmer in the Philippines can only make a monthly average income of P8,000 to P14,000 or a maximum of P161,189 annually.

The dilemma in the fields is caused by several factors. First is the uncompetitive sizes of our small farms. 78 percent of our farmers own less than three hectares of farmlands only. This minute size will not provide the opportunity of achieving scale and therefore, not grant the capability to achieve bigger earnings from larger productions. And 70 percent of our farmers don’t own lands (USAID, 2021).

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), in 2021, the average gross revenues created per one hectare of farm dedicated to rice production is P68,519 per year or P21,430 net income only. As they say, we don’t need a PhD to understand this obvious objective limitation. Do the math. Others may argue that PSA can be inaccurate. The income can be double. Just the same, make it even triple the reported averages. Farmers are still poor even if you quadruple their income.

Second factor is the lack of dependable irrigation. For everyone’s appreciation, the equation is simple. No water, no production. Irrigation systems provide the backbone of farm productivity. The administration of PBBM is fully aware on empowering additional lands by providing them stable source of water. This is the marching order given to Engineer Eduardo Guillen, the administrator of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA). I am convinced and confident that he can formulate the blueprint on how to navigate the huge task given to him by PBBM. He has the competence to pursue the much-needed engineering infrastructure that will convert at least a million additional hectares of unproductive lands for our growing agricultural demand.

Third, but not the last among several factors, is the constant onslaught of natural calamities. Our country has to brace for at least 20 tropical cyclones every year. Nature is beyond our control. But we can mitigate the impact of strong typhoons that cause destructive floods and landslides. Again, engineering interventions must be deployed such as building effective water catchment basins in strategic areas and conducting effective dredging of major river systems, though these are considered expensive, especially if not done properly. Building of dams to harness the power and volume of waters from the mountains to the farmlands is a crucial component of our overall package of solutions.

Proceed with the permanent engineering and policy solutions. We are an agricultural country. Supposed to be, rice production is our strength, along with other high-value crops. Our natural resources are abundantly present. We have to fully support the needed steps that will take years before we benefit from them.

Our farmers lack the moral boost to pursue their traditional trade. This is not due to their inability to work well. But this is because of the reality that their sacrifices are hardly reciprocated by the society they dearly serve.

Time for us to move as a nation to courageously end the unnatural agricultural menace.

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