The Philippine Star

While expanding health benefits to the poorest sectors of Filipino society and building more high schools in remote areas of the country are popular rallying points by the incoming administration, more attention should be given to rice self-sufficiency for this growing nation of 102 million citizens.

As a food staple of most Filipino homes, rice has made the
Philippines as one of, if not, the top rice consuming country/ies in the world.

Unfortunately, no government program has effectively increased our rice production capability to meet demand for several decades now. This is not just about increasing the budget for agriculture, but even boosting farm economics beyond all the challenges that farmers face.

If half a century ago, farmers were asking for more irrigation canals to bring water to their rice fields, this is still what they are asking today. While other rice-producing countries have moved to three crops a year, the Philippines has kept to two, or even just one if there are typhoons or floods that damage the fields.

The introduction of new, supposedly better, varieties of rice has not given farmers better earnings. While the yield per hectare may perhaps be more, the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other productivity “enhancers” has kept the cost of rice production at barely break-even levels.

Land reform, mechanization, cooperatives, and other innovations introduced to supposedly benefit the rice farmer have not worked too, for one reason or another. In short, it has been one sad story after another, and the whole nation is paying for it now.

Breaking away

How do we break away from this underperformance cycle? Perhaps there is no better time than now to quickly do a revamp of the whole agriculture bureaucracy to make it truly what it is mandated to do: boost the nation’s agricultural productivity, including rice.

The reorganization of the Department of Agriculture, though, will take time, and does not immediately promise 100 percent success. Needless to say, shaping up the agriculture department to become an efficient bureaucracy should be done at once.

Over the next six years, let’s put an amount to the cost of rebuilding and expanding irrigation systems, dams, watersheds and other sources of water. Add to this the potential cost of damages from climate change. Let us then commit to this cost by ensuring budget prioritization every year.

If need be, let’s expand the Public-Private Partnership program to more areas in the agricultural sector, thereby allowing more investments to enter. Build-operate-transfer or similar turnkey projects for irrigation and modernization are a few of the areas that hold some potential for partnership.

Finally, a focused reaching out to the 2.4 million rice farmers to help them improve their productivity is doable. Let’s have an army of agricultural extension workers whose responsibility will be to upgrade the skills level of every Filipino rice farmer.

Let’s have those modern mechanized implements into the rice farms so that our farmers will be able to plant and harvest rice faster and at a lower cost. This has to be relentless drive, and no one stops until we get to where we want to be: self-sufficient in rice.

Competing with
Vietnam and Thailand

One of our readers, D. Dizon, sent a letter detailing some initiatives that the
Philippines may adopt with minimum government intervention so that it can effectively compete against Vietnam and Thailand on rice production. He writes:
“The NFA [National Food Authority] has liabilities of around P150 billion or a yearly subsidy of about P12 billion. The NFA system buys high and sell low, breeding corruptions and providing only a “Band Aid” solution.

“We have to eliminate the cause of the problem of low productivity and high cost of production. Planting hybrid at both dry and wet seasons can reduced cost of production to P5–6 per kg of unmilled rice.

“Our present annual production of 18 million tons per year of unmilled rice can be increased to 24 million tons just by adopting hybrid varieties during both seasons in 20 percent of the 2 million hectares of irrigated areas.

“Adopting an alternate wet and dry (AWD) technology developed by Philrice, NIA (National Irrigation Authority) and the DA can reduced water consumption up to 30 percent, or expand irrigation by just a net 20 percent.

“We may allocate scarce resources to other more important and urgent projects instead for the expensive rehabilitation and expansion of irrigation systems and the NFA’s bottomless pit.

“Adopting local technology can increase the net income by 20 percent of marginal farmers who constitute about 85 percent of rice farmers with irrigation system.

Creating new wealth

“A ball park figure of 2 million rice farmers can generate new wealth in the rural area amounting to P40 billion, with multiplier effect. This ultimate solution will minimize migration of our unskilled laborer abroad in low-paying, dirty, dangerous jobs. Likewise, migration to big cities will help ease overloading the city services, causing horrendous traffic and high crime rate.

“Most marginal rice farmers are above 50 years old, poor, less educated and resistant to change. They depend on financing for their inputs through usurious traders at rate of 36 percent per annum. Land Bank and private banks require voluminous data, a secured title of the land as collateral, all of which a typical farmer cannot do.

“To transfer rice technology rapidly to above marginal farmers requires technical support from the local government unit’s agricultural workers,. This cannot be done alone by agro-chemical suppliers.

“Temporary subsidy for the technology is a must for farmers to try, and once his income increases, he can be able to adopt the technology without government subsidy.

“The technology must be easy to adopt and must be an add-on only to the current farmers’ practices, meaning no additional inputs for chemical fertilizer.

“If 20 percent of 2 million hectares of irrigated rice land will adopt the hybrid variety during both seasons, theoretically, it will increase production close to 4 million tons, or we will have surplus production of 2 million tons.

“Champions of social progress” not interested

“It is unfortunate our major industrialist who have the resources are never interested to venture in agriculture to alleviate the lives of the masses. Yet, they are depicted by the media as champions of social progress. Their main thrust is to set up monopolistic industries, which mainly benefit only a chosen few.”

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