Viewpoint

Burnt rice, anyone?

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Walang tutong sa taong nagugutom, a Filipino proverb says. “There’s no burnt rice to a hungry person.”

Hunger anchors World Food Day (WFD), Oct. 16. The Philippines and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) member-countries established WFD in 1979. Today, 150 countries observe WFD.

WFD came after Henry Kissinger told the 1974 World Food Conference that “[w]ithin 10 years, no child would go to bed hungry.” Today, one out of every eight—12 percent of the world’s population—is food short.

Political static drowns WFD’s message here. The European Union, the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference) welcomed the agreement on the framework for peace forged by government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front “to turn swords into ploughshares.” But the aging Moro National Liberation Front and communist commissars threaten mayhem. So do rebels like Umra Kato and gang.

Sen. Ralph Recto gutted a P60-billion “sin tax” proposal to a pittance of P15 billion. He now twists in a whirlwind of criticism. Did coddled tobacco firms, in a hush-hush meeting, provide Recto’s mask of injured innocence?

Social Weather Stations’ October report says 4.3 million households were hard put to get even burnt rice. Over the past three months, 21 percent “experienced involuntary hunger, at least once.”

“Moderate hunger”—having nothing to eat only once or a few times—surged. In crammed Metro Manila, overall hunger rose to 10 percent. It inched up in Mindanao. Decades of conflict castrated its potential as the nation’s breadbasket.

Weather pattern distortions, continued post-harvest losses and growing populations interlocked with shrinking farmlands. These morphed into the “new geopolitics of food scarcity,” Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown notes.

Between 2007 and 2008, grain prices doubled. FAO reported that prices bolted by a further 1.4 percent in September. “That left more people hungry than at any time in history…. An era of filled granaries had come to an end.”

The rich rearranged their menus. But the poor spend 50-70 percent of skimpy incomes on food. They’ve long consumed the last scrap of tutong. They now skip meals.

In India, 24 percent of families go through foodless days, a  “Save the Children” survey found. More than half the people of Haiti are undernourished. The Global Hunger Index of  2012  identifies 20 countries saddled by “alarming” levels of hunger. These include East Timor, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Burundi, Madagascar, Niger, Djibouti and Nepal.

World food reserves dwindled from 107 days of consumption to only 74 days in 2008. This triggered a “land rush.” Some Gulf states,  China, South Korea, and Libya, even Sweden,   bought or leased land where they can grow food for themselves—in other countries.

Over 30 million hectares have now been contracted for. International Food Policy Research Institute estimates nearly $20 to $30 billion a year is spent by better-off countries on land. Most are in Africa.

Saudi Arabia, whose aquifers ran dry last year, bought half-a-million hectares in Tanzania. South Korea signed a 99-year lease for 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land in Madagascar.

Other major destinations for land hunters are Ethiopia and the two Sudans. Millions in these countries are sustained with UN World Food Programme donations.

Here, 21 out of every 100 infants have low weight at birth. Wasting and stunting (32 percent) result when kids are nursed by wizened, chronically malnourished mothers. Out of every 1,000 births here, 29 never make it to age 5. Today, the country is almost on par with the Dominican Republic in infant mortality rates. It lags behind Malaysia’s 6. In an overall ranking of 193 countries, we’re wedged at slot 80.

Worse, these dry-as-sawdust statistics infect many of us with Mego syndrome. “Mine eyes glaze over.” We’re blind to the pain. We do not see Lazarus at the gate.

President Aquino’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program eased some of hunger’s raw pain. CCT provides families with  monthly grants of P1,400—provided they keep children in school, and have them vaccinated and enrolled in health programs. There are 3.08 million household-beneficiaries.

World Bank, the Australian Agency for International Development and Asian Development Bank are providing additional support until 2015. That’s when this program phases out.

Will we see then the frail men and women who till slivers of land or fish-depleted waters for what they are? Only they can provide a permanent solution to hunger.

Ironically, they’re locked into subsistence treadmills by elite political dynasties. They’re denied access to tools for production, but above all, a just share from their work. As a result, their lives are truncated by disease, lack of schooling and limited hope. It is obscene that those who produce food are often the ones who go hungry.

“Critics say our crafting of policies often confuses the problem of hunger with that of its cause: social injustice,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali wrote. “They insist our flawed strategies did not stem from poor judgment. At rock bottom, it was a simple case of old-fashioned greed. Avarice rationalized the betrayal of the weak.”

“I pray this assessment is wrong,” he added. “(Otherwise) we will have much to answer for from those whose lives and hopes were blighted by hunger.”

(E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com )

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