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Available, accessible, affordable food for all

Food security, which pertains to the availability, accessibility, and affordability of food, has long been among the top concerns of most Filipinos.

Even during periods of abundant harvests, farm produce is hardly accessible or difficult to bring to the market because of inadequate farm-to-market roads, transport, and storage facilities. Mobility restrictions brought about by the pandemic also complicated the delivery of produce to some areas.

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In 2020, 62.1 percent of the population or about six out of every 10 Filipinos were at risk or were actually suffering from inadequate access to food.

The bigger problem for many, however, is the rising cost and prices of food, which drive up the country’s inflation rate. Food and nonalcoholic beverages account for 39 percent of Filipino consumers’ expenditures. Higher food prices will continue to eat up a bigger share of their incomes.

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Philippine Statistics Authority data show there are about 26.1 million or 23.7 percent of the population living in poverty. Their per capita income is below the threshold of P2,416 a month—an amount that could barely cover food and basic non-food needs like clothing, housing, transportation, education, and health care.

Of this number, there are 10.9 million Filipinos who earn less than the threshold of P1,679 a month and, therefore, cannot afford even the most basic food requirements like meat, milk, fruits, and vegetables. It is ironic that many of those who produce the food we eat are themselves too poor. Latest available records showed that in 2018, 31.6 percent of Filipino farmers, 26.2 percent of fishermen, and 24.5 percent of people in the rural areas were living in poverty.

The rising cost of food and extreme poverty are also to blame for the high rates of hunger and malnourishment in the country, with more than 33 percent of Filipino children suffering from malnutrition. This will have long-term adverse impact on the children’s physical and mental development, productivity, and economic potential — a very real threat to the country’s economic stability.

Ensuring food security will take an entirely new mindset and the full transformation of the agricultural sector, as suggested by a World Bank study (“Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID-19 and Beyond”). It should be aimed at developing a dynamic, high-growth, and highly competitive sector to ensure food security and substantially reduce poverty.

Recent policies put in place by the Duterte administration are seen as steps in the right direction toward ensuring food security and alleviating poverty. One is the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) “New Thinking” agro-industrial development strategy, which has now evolved into the One DA Reform Agenda: modernization, industrialization, farm consolidation and clustering, and professionalization. The rice tariffication law is an indication of this correct strategic shift in policy.

The Duterte administration also eased the import restrictions on pork and fish, and recently, on feed corn to help tame price increases arising from recent disruptions. Cash aid was also granted to farmers, fishermen, and low-income consumers.

The following are some points raised by various groups that the new administration should consider in pursuing the DA’s “New Thinking” development strategy and transforming the agriculture sector:

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– Expanding the focus of the programs and resources of the DA from rice, corn, and coconut to include other agricultural crops that offer greater income and job-generating opportunities such as high-value crops like fruits, vegetables, cacao, coffee, and even specialty rice.

– Shifting from a supply-oriented agriculture to one that is demand-driven.

– Consolidating small and medium farmlands to make agriculture an efficient, viable, and competitive industry. Other options like cooperative farming and contract growing can be explored.

– Modernizing agricultural extension services to cater to the needs of farmers in an increasingly diversified sector; establishing reliable databases and analytical capacity in the DA for timely and appropriate decision-making; providing support services such as common warehouses, cold storage, and irrigation facilities; facilitating e-commerce development.

– Industrializing the agriculture sector should cover the entire value chain— improving market networks, land and sea transportation systems, and infrastructure, particularly farm-to-market national and local roads. It requires focus on value-adding and increased investments in agribusiness incubation and education.

Adopting agricultural sector development as a key strategy for poverty alleviation and food security will require more resources. The budget allocation for the sector, which at present is P102.5 billion or only 2.04 percent of the P5.024-trillion national budget, should be substantially increased. In comparison, Vietnam allotted 6.5 percent of its national budget for agriculture in 2020, while Thailand earmarked 3.4 percent for this sector.

However, the DA must show a significant improvement in its absorptive capacity to convince Congress to allot bigger funds for the department in the coming years. The DA was able to spend only 61.2 percent of its allotted budget in 2017, 62 percent in 2018, and 60.4 percent in 2019.

Also, the public-private sector partnership should be revived to get the private sector to invest and help in funding the agricultural sector’s transformation, particularly in accelerating infrastructure development in the countryside.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s World Food Summit in 1996 reaffirmed “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.” To guarantee these rights of every Filipino, food security—availability, accessibility, and affordability—must be assured.

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Gary B. Teves served as finance secretary under the Arroyo administration.

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