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Food security required for national security

Through the years, food security and self-sufficiency especially in rice has been a cherished dream of the Philippines. Since the inception of Masagana 99, which made the country self-sufficient in rice for a while in the late 1970s, the government has launched a succession of programs aimed at attaining self-sufficiency in the staple.

Public awareness of the urgent imperative of national food security was recently heightened by media coverage of the issue of rice importation. This burning issue emerged with President Duterte’s statement on the National Food Authority’s procurement from Filipino farmers at a time of peak harvest. Rice importation was highlighted by the clamor of food security experts to shore up the country’s buffer stock of the staple especially for the coming lean months.

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The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization states that “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” When this access is denied, social unrest can be sparked. (For instance, in 2008 when there was a spike in food prices, there were riots and unrest in various parts of the world.) Thus, aside from terrorism and other external challenges, food insecurity is a significant threat to national security. Sustainable food security is therefore an indispensable requisite to national security.

At the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, heads of states reaffirmed everyone’s right to access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger. They pledged political will and common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to supporting an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate objective of reducing the number of undernourished people to half its level.

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Poverty is the root cause of hunger and food insecurity, so increasing people’s income is indispensable in improving their access to food. Ensuring national food security should thus be undertaken in the context of improving the income and livelihoods of the people especially those in the rural areas.

Sustainable food security should equitably benefit smallholder farmers and consumers. Climate-change-related events have damaged farms of major food-producing countries, decreasing global food stocks to all-time lows. As a result, there is less food for export as countries move to secure domestic demand. Moreover, the Asean common market poses a tremendous challenge in making Filipino farmers competitive with their counterparts in the region.

Amid the substantial increase in food supply, it is intolerable that more than three million Filipino families do not have enough food to eat. The Philippines imports about 37 percent of its cereal requirements which include rice and corn. It also imports 98 percent of milk and other dairy products. Although it is a net exporter of fish in terms of value, it imports more fish by weight. While it earns $3.14 billion from its top agricultural exports, it spends almost double the amount on top agricultural imports.

Despite available technology and top-caliber personnel, the Philippines is prevented from attaining sustained food security by short-term domestic food production programs, rising food prices, and reduced global food supply, as well as natural and manmade disasters aggravated by climate change.

The country needs to harness strong political will to move forward and erase its global reputation as one of the world’s largest rice importers amid the presence of reputable agricultural research institutions and a critical mass of highly trained scientists.

A rising “perfect storm”—a confluence of climate change, rising food prices, energy crisis, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and population explosion—is the biggest threat to food security and global agriculture in this century. Filipino farmers  will be the hardest hit due mainly to increasing water scarcity, frequent droughts, rising temperatures, new pests and diseases, shorter growing seasons and degraded natural resources especially in rain-fed and upland areas. Moreover, they spend about 60 percent of their income on food. Thus, the challenges of hunger and food insecurity are likely to persist, unless urgent, determined, coordinated and sustained action is taken.

There is a need to adopt supportive policies and sustained investments supporting food production, postproduction and procurement. Accompanying these, agriculture must be modernized in order to synergize linkages of the whole value chain from preproduction, production, processing, marketing and consumption. This will maximize productivity and add value to benefit all the players in the system.

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The main drivers of agriculture modernization are programs propelled by science-based innovations, policy reforms, sound management and governance systems, a new breed of entrepreneurs, empowered farming communities, and market-oriented agro-based industries.

Together with providing food assistance to the poorest Filipino families, effective contingency systems should be established for smallholder farmers and their communities. This will enable them to be prepared at all times, to be resilient vis a vis the effects of natural calamities, and to be able to meet transitory food and seed needs.

Propelled by a strong political will, we need to modernize agriculture now to fulfill the country’s cherished  dream of achieving  food security and national security for all times.

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Dr. Rex L. Navarro is a member of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization of the Philippines and former director of strategic marketing and communication at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Andra Pradesh, India.

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