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Why a rice shortage in the Philippines?

By MONG PALATINO
Column: Peripheries
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Published: April 02, 2008 Print Story
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Manila, Philippines — The price of rice is skyrocketing all over the


world. This trend will continue until the end of the year, and it is causing panic in
many Asian countries, including the Philippines.

Why is rice getting more expensive? The rice supply is decreasing. Floods in
many Asian countries have affected the rice output in the region. Rice exporting
nations like Thailand and Vietnam have also reduced their exports to prioritize
their local needs. On the other hand, demand for rice has been increasing,
especially in India and China.

The Philippines is one of the top importers of rice in the world. Rice is a politically
sensitive commodity in this country. It is not surprising that reports of a rice
shortage have energized political debate and public concern regarding the
economic policies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

If the global supply of rice is dwindling, what is being done to increase local
production? In the first place, why is the Philippines, which is predominantly an
agricultural nation, importing rice from other countries?

An article entitled "Food Security and Rice" by Dr. Onofre Corpuz provides some
historical background on the rice shortage in the Philippines. The article mentions
the policies of the government which have weakened the local rice industry.

According to Corpuz, the annual shortages in rice production should not be


described as "crises." The Philippines has been importing rice since the 1870s --
this is more than 130 years. He blames government planning on food security for
the shortages in rice production.

When Spain decided to open Philippine ports in 1835, it allowed its colony to
trade non-rice products to other countries. There was a high demand for cane
sugar, molasses, indigo, abaca, tobacco and coffee. Rice farmers began to plant
these food items, and by 1870 there was already a rice shortage in the country.
The Philippines began importing rice from Indochina. During the 1890s, the
Philippines was importing 45,000 tons of rice annually.
Corpuz also mentioned the following reasons for the rice shortage during the
Spanish era:

1. A primitive rice culture, from land preparation to harvesting;

2. A feudal system since the Spanish conquest. Families who owned small plots
did not enjoy property rights;

3. A religious culture that meant 100-120 days of "enforced idleness," since work
was banned during Sundays, town feasts and church holidays; and

4. Farmers or sharecroppers in haciendas (plantations) tilled small parcels of


land yielding low output, thus preventing any savings. The farmers were always
in debt, and the Spanish government had no assistance program for them.

After the Revolution of 1896 and the subsequent Philippine-American War, rice
production was very low. Many lands had been idled. The population of carabao –
water buffaloes that helped till the land -- was reduced. And many agricultural
workers died during the war.

The U.S. civilian government instituted economic measures to cope with the low
rice ouput. It fixed prices, bought foreign rice and undertook the distribution of
rice down to the barrio, or district, level. From 1901-36, the colonial government
bought 335.5 million pesos worth of rice.

Corpuz summed up the official policy of the U.S. government on agriculture:


Producing the export crops offered better returns than producing the country's
rice requirements domestically; therefore, the export crop sector must be
promoted, and, in the event of rice shortages, foreign rice was to be imported at
as cheap prices as possible.

This led to the cultivation of more land for producing sugar, abaca and coconut --
which produced raw materials needed by U.S. industries. These products were
allowed to enter the U.S. market without quota and duty-free.

The colonial regime neglected to provide rice farmers with technological


programs to increase rice yields. U.S. officials collaborated with local landlords in
denying the right of small farmers to obtain property rights to their lands.

In 1931 Philippine Agriculture Secretary Rafael Alunan reported that Indochina


nations produced 2,200 kilos of rice per hectare, while the Philippines produced
only 1,225 kilos. He also claimed that the Philippines was behind Java by 30
years in terms of scientific and technological support for agriculture.

Corpuz could not understand the low priority given to rice farmers despite the
fact that during this period, "the rice sector was the largest sector in the
Philippine economy in terms of value of product, labor force engaged and
number of families dependent on the sector for their livelihood, and hectarage
covered."

Corpuz wrote that the policies of price controls and rice imports were done to
keep rice prices low "for the benefit of salaried government employees and the
service population of Manila, and to keep the food costs of labor in the export
agriculture and domestic manufacturing sectors low."

This brief history of the rice sector can shed light on the numerous periods of
agrarian unrest in the country. It can also correct the wrong notion that the
Philippines was a rice exporting nation or that it has been teaching other Asians
how to increase rice productivity.

The article can help explain the rice and food shortages that the Philippines are
experiencing today. Something is wrong with an economic policy that prioritizes
the planting of cash crops to be exported to other countries over the planting of
food crops needed by the people who are suffering from hunger.

Instead of increasing local rice production, the government is dependent on


imported rice. Since joining the World Trade Organization in 1995, the Philippines
has become Asia's top rice importer with average annual imports of over 1
million metric tons.

Rice lands are also disappearing because of land conversion. The government
today, like the Spanish and American colonial governments of the past, has been
persuading farmers to plant cash crops and other export products. Big landlords
are also converting farmland into golf courses, residential villages, and agro-
industrial parks to apply for exemption from the land distribution program of the
government.

The rice problem is made worse by rice smuggling. Unscrupulous rice traders
collude with politicians and agricultural officials in hoarding rice supplies. This
creates an artificial crisis which jacks up the price of rice. Corruption is also to be
blamed. In the 2004 elections, President Arroyo distributed millions in fertilizer
funds to her loyal supporters. The money could have been used to improve rice
productivity.

Rice is the staple food of Filipinos. Remove it from the tables and there will be
mass unrest. Blaming the weather and the limited global supply to explain the
rice shortage is not enough. The government has to abandon its agricultural
liberalization program and its overdependence on rice imports. The government
must adopt emergency measures to increase the rice output of farmers. The
time has come to implement a genuine agrarian reform.

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Case 1 questions:

Questions:

1. Why is there a rice shortage in our country? Give three reasons and explain.
2. What could be the possible solutions to the food crisis facing our country?