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Editorial

Ensuring food security

/ 05:07 AM June 09, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year has further weakened a global food system already battered by the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and soaring oil prices. This has put the world on the brink of a global food shortage that, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned, would tip millions of people over the edge into food insecurity followed by malnutrition and mass hunger.

Indeed, because of the price shocks and food supply uncertainties resulting from the protracted war between Russia and Ukraine, both of which account for almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley supply, many nations have decided to stop exporting food to secure their own inventory and feed their own people.

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These include Indonesia, which has banned the export of palm oil used for cooking, and India, which decided last month to stop exporting wheat which is processed for both food and feed, causing prices of the staple to rise by another 6 percent on top of the already staggering 53 percent price hike this year.

Due to the perfect storm created by the pandemic, climate change that has reduced the productivity of farmland and fisheries, as well as supply disruptions caused by Russian aggression, global food prices have risen by nearly a third, fertilizer by more than half, and oil prices by almost two-thirds, Guterres said.

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This is disheartening news for the Philippines, which has increasingly turned to imports to fill the yawning gaps in local production of key commodities, including rice, corn, sugar, pork, and even fish.

According to the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc. (PCAFI), with many exporting countries closing their doors, a food shortage could be possible toward the end of the year.

“A lot of countries are banning their export to the Philippines to protect their own economic and food security. Where do we get the food if we do not have the production?” asked PCAFI president Danilo Fausto during its general assembly last month.

And with constrained supply, local prices have consequently risen, exacerbated by high oil prices that have made agricultural production, from distribution to storage and hauling, much more expensive. The impact is felt mostly in basic food items like bread which has become more costly, adding to the already heavy burden among pandemic-weary Filipinos.

Inflation, or the rate of increase in the prices of basic commodities, has surged to a 42-month high of 5.4 percent in May because of soaring food and energy prices, with expectations that prices will remain elevated until at least the end of next year.

The Social Weather Stations said in a survey released Monday that the country’s hunger rate increased to 12.2 percent in the first quarter, from 11.8 percent in December last year, and that this number could swell as the Ukraine-Russia war drags on, keeping food prices out of reach among the poor.

For Sen. Imee Marcos, who has long criticized the import-first policy of the Department of Agriculture (DA), the specter of a global food crisis should rouse the country to the urgent need to shore up local supply and improve the distribution of agricultural produce from farmers to consumers.

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Marcos, who chairs the Senate committee on economic affairs, said an effective distribution system would not only enhance the cycle of food production and supply but would also provide a better picture of the volume of rice, sugar, vegetables, pork, beef, poultry, and fish that the country really needs to import.

“(L)et us exhaust all domestic supplies before embarking on the knee-jerk DA response of importation,” she said, referring to the agency’s and the Department of Trade and Industry’s usual recourse to control runaway market prices that only leaves local farmers at the mercy of ruthless traders and cartels.

The Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) echoed the call, emphasizing that “the only way out” of the food supply and price crises is to “support local production, subsidize farm inputs and help farmers across the whole production chain.”

“We can never rely on the vagaries of the world market. Political upheavals, pandemics and natural calamities are [occurring] more often than ever before. Disruption of supply chain and global price volatility is the new norm,” said Sinag executive director Jayson Cainglet, “It is truly tragic that it is only here in our country that we have an agency—the DA—that continues to espouse the mantra of Import First Policy.”

The government would also do well to enforce its sovereignty over the rich West Philippine Sea to immediately bolster local fish supply.

That the incoming administration has declared that agricultural programs would be given priority in the national budget is a welcome sign that the vital and yet “second priority” agriculture sector will finally get the attention and focus it needs so that, given the fragile global food situation, the Philippines would be able to feed its own people.

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