COVID-19 Pandemic and the looming food crisis | Inquirer Opinion
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COVID-19 Pandemic and the looming food crisis

01:58 PM June 06, 2020

Joan Bondoc/Inquirer

Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic , there  arises  a   looming food crisis.  About three decades back, the country was a net food producer. Gradually, we became net food importers.  Over the past decade, food imports had crept up.

Overall, we import 30% of our food requirements. For some crops like soybean, we import yearly  all our requirements valued at P44 billion and  P53.57 billion for  milk and dairy products . Incidentally, the Philippines did not respond to the signals of the looming food shortage.

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If there is  any  positive signal that COVID-19 Pandemic   triggered, it was our realization that we need to   produce adequate food , particularly rice,  our staple food ( we eat  three times a day,  and we Filipinos, feel, we did not eat yet our meal without  rice    supplying   45% to 65% of our  food caloric energy requirements ). This happened when the  Vietnamese government  decided to regulate rice exports due to the  pandemic.

The pandemic also  made us realize that we  need to grow our own food in whatever  quantity. Thanks to the promotion being done by the Department of Agriculture  as they are giving  free seeds and seedlings to jumpstart the  household activity.

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What can be done to address the looming food crisis?  There are many that could be done. We could easily be food-caloric-energy sufficient with our current production systems by doing the following:

1)Mix rice with white corn grits. Studies showed that corn can be mixed with our rice up to 30 percent. We should promote growing  white corn for grains . Our  projected  rice import this year    was calculated by USDA at about 3.3 Million tons. On the average , we produce about 7 million metric tons of corn. But these are mainly yellow corn for our livestock feeds. We should  grow white corn for food. Corn is mostly grown  in upland rain-fed areas. Grown after the rainy season rice , corn consume only  a third of  irrigation water relative to rice.

2) Shift  our white-rice consumption  to brown rice. If we mix 50 percent brown rice with our well-milled rice, we could be self-sufficient in rice (Brown rice leads to an 8-to 10-percent increase in milling recovery and a 30- to 40-percent reduction in rice consumption). Moreover, brown rice is more nutritious than well-milled rice.

3) We  can eat other food-caloric sources like root crops ( sweet potato, cassava, gabi ) and banana ( saba). Sweet potato is a 4 month crop . It can be grown as sequence crop after rice. The pandemic made sweet potato  in high demand . There is low supply .  Fresh sweet potato ( 90 % moisture ) is priced at PhP 50 to 60 per kilo  which made it 10 times more expensive than our regular milled rice at 12 % moisture. Hereon, our farmers should grow them.  At PhP 10 per kg,  a gross income PhP400,000 can be realized at a yield of 40 tons per ha , or a net income of PhP 200,000  after deducting  the  costs of production.

4)Eating more vegetables and fruits. Filipinos consume low amount of vegetables at 30 to 40 kg per capita. The recommended amount is 130kg per capita. At this consumption, we will not over eat rice at the current 118 kg per capita. The Chinese eat as much as 225 kg per capita. Vegetables provide many nutrients, minerals, and  vitamins. They are high in  fiber that our gut microbiome  needs. The pandemic  made us realize that we need to be healthy  so our immune systems is alive to avoid or resists COVID-19  harassment .  Fruits and vegetables are essential in our  3 meals. We have to eat fruits is season . Example, Indian mangoes are relatively cheap now ( PhP15/kg ), duhat , siniguelas. In general,  fruits are expensive. Imagine  jackfruit at PhP50/kg at 40% edible fraction, implies the true price is 125 per kg edible fruit portion and at 90% moisture. At 14% dry basis , its adjusted price is PhP 803/kg. Jackfruit can be grown  from Aparri to Sulu.

Back to  rice  and how could we produce  adequate rice  for all.  Since we are importing rice for the last three decades, many believed that we remain rice importer forever. Till the pandemic  happened, our economic managers believed that we produce only what we can and import the rests. It is the  belief,   supported by their data,  that it  is more economical and practical to import cheap rice  elsewhere.  Here comes the  Vietnamese government  announcing that they are regulating their export? Where shall we import cheap rice?

To begin with, we have the technology to produce 10 to 12 tons per hectare using hybrid rice  and up to 7 to 8 tons per ha  for inbred rice.  But recall our approach in  promoting rice production. In brief, we   help our rice  farmers produce  rice but we  leave them to sell their  produce at below break-even price. This happened recently  after the enactment of Rice Tarrification Act( Republic Act No. 11203). It   is a calamity worse than flooding or drought, because many farmers had lost their income.

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Former Sec.Pinol estimated P125 billion lost income for the farmers. The pandemic triggered the passage of Bayanihan Act  (R A. 11469). The spirit of the law should be applied across  sectors and situations. Bayanihan should be practiced more by the citizens and NOT  merely by the government allocating funds  to help the needy, poor,  and vulnerable sectors. The estimated fund allocation could reach 1.5 trillion peso. This act simply demonstrates, if there is  a will , there  are  ways!

Considered as frontliners, the  farmers need our support ( our will ). Some possibilities ( ways ) are as follows:

  1. a) Concerned citizens should  help farmers. Let’s practice Advance Puchase Systems . Well-to-do families should buy in advance their rice requirement (20 cavans at P23/kg = P23,000. At 1 million families,this is equivalent to a PhP23-billion infusion into  rural  rice economies  .
  2. b) Private companies that employ more than 400 people or more should buy the rice requirement of their employees. At 1 cavan a month x 400 = 4,800 cavans a year or 7,500 cavans of unmilled rice at P23/kg. If we have 5,000 corporations that will respond to this call, it will translate to a PhP 43.13 billion direct rice purchase from farmers through their cooperatives.

This money (P66.125 billion) infused in the rural rice economies in advance, say at crop establishment period   shall free the farmers from incurring loans  from the  loan providers  charging usurious interest rates. It can also counter the traders’ control of the price of rice during harvest season (October to November and March to April).

  1. c) The government should take this signal from concerned citizens and 5,000 private corporations . It should implement a P23/kg guaranteed price for our farmers. A comprehensive support package must be designed ie. Crop insurance, farmers  insurance (SSS, hilHealth ).

This  assured income of our farmers together with the crop and farmers insurance  will highly motivate our rice farmers to   plant and care their crop to get high yields .At 5 tons per ha, we shall harvest 22.5 Mtons per year at 4.5 Mha harvested area . WE have adequate rice for all.

We now have an Organic Agriculture Act (RA 10068). Going organic agriculture needs soil rehabilitation or soil fertility restoration.

Restoring soil fertility is a slow and gradual process. Experiences show that three to five years are required to rehabilitate the soil. But there are techniques to hasten the process. Two practices can be adopted immediately: 1)Implement a nationwide no-rice-straw burning. A ton of straw is equivalent to a bag of urea. About 3 tons/ha of rice straw are simply burnt;2)Integrate urban-waste recycling (biodegradable waste) to provide partially the organic nutrient requirements of our fields. More than 50 percent of our population lives in urban areas.

We can expect our farmers to restore soil fertility if the land is theirs.WE have to re evaluate Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program . We  have to  reform CARP to ensure that  the actual  tillers of the farms   owns the lands. Seed and equipment support for organic farming should also be promoted. Many  farmers are mostly into monoculture.They have lost their bahay-kubo crop species. The Pandemic had also made us realize that we should eat diverse plant based food. Hence,  we should also promote Diversified farming  not only in rice but in all farming areas or agroecosystems. Farmers must be retrained on propagation of various seed lots (orthodox and recalcitrant) and appropriate planting materials (cuttings, tubers and roots) of various crop species.

The shift to diverse agriculture requires relandscaping or redesigning the farms to  achieve the desired ecosystem or soil condition of the various crops species to be grown by the farmers. Equipment for soil digging (backhoe) and water-reservoir construction (bulldozer and loader) must be made available to farmers. For roads and bridges, we have DPWH(Dept. of Public Works and Highways). For our farms, at the minimum, we should have Bureau of Machineries for  Farm Development( BMFD).

Finally, no  Filipinos  should go to bed  without food. There are still many idle spaces and the Philippine climate is so accommodating for our crops. We need to implement “household-based food garden” integrating biodegradable wastes recycling through   composting  for our vegetables and fruit trees around the house. This solves the interrelated  problems of  high costs of fetilizers and waste disposal that clog our waterways and cause flash floods during heavy rains.

[Teodoro C. Mendoza is a retired  professor of  Institute of Crop Science at the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences, UP Los Baños. He is an advocate and practitioner of  “household-based” food garden and small-scale biodiverse organic farming.]

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TAGS: agriculture, Coronavirus, COVID-19, food security, Rice production
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