Why are the prices of food rising? | Inquirer Opinion
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Why are the prices of food rising?

LAST MONDAY’S topics at the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel were very important to Filipinos: education and food. The panelists were Assistant Secretary Tonisito M.C. Umali of the Department of Education, and Ric M. Pinca, executive director of the Philippine Association of Flour Millers.

Why can’t our graduates find jobs and why are the prices of food, specifically bread’s, rising? These are the questions uppermost in the minds of the people.

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To the first question, the answer of Asec Umali was: Because our students spend too short a time in school—and not because they’re cutting classes or making “bulakbol” but because the curriculum designed by the Department of Education is too short. Filipino students spend an average of 10 years in basic education—six years in elementary school and four years in high school—two or three years short of the international standard. Theoretically, a high school graduate should already be able to get a job, Umali said, but even after four years more of college, he is not fit enough for work.

The DepEd is recommending that students undergo two more years of high school and to undergo at least kindergarten before starting grade school at age 6 or 7. That is why children of poor families perform poorly in school. While children of middle-class families go to kindergarten before beginning Grade 1, children of poor families don’t because of financial problems.

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Won’t the extra three years of basic education be a burden on poor families?

Public school is free, Umali replied. Aside from the transportation fare and snacks, there is nothing else to spend for. On the other hand, the student, after graduating from high school, will be better prepared to work or to go to college.

We are at a disadvantage compared to graduates from other countries that have 12 or 13 years of basic education, Umali said. Aside from that, our students attend classes for only half the day, whereas most countries have whole-day sessions. “Our students are actually getting much less hours of schooling,” he added.

The DepEd is also changing the curriculum, Umali said, so the students will learn more practical and modern lessons such as mathematics and science.

“If we don’t change, our graduates would be left behind by the world,” he concluded.

* * *

To the second question: Why is the price of bread, and food in general, rising? Pinca replied: Because the price of oil is rising.

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What has the price of oil got to do with the price of bread?

Because oil prices are rising, countries are converting food crops like corn, soybeans, and sugar cane into biofuel. Corn and sugar cane are turned into ethanol. Soybeans are also being diverted from food to bio-diesel. Corn provides the carbohydrate in animal feed, composing 50 to 60 percent of the formula. Soybeans provide the protein component, about 20 to 25 percent of the feed. Wheat which usually goes to bread flour for human consumption is being used to replace corn in the feed formula, causing a tightening of supply in the food sector.

The United States is the world’s biggest producer of corn, producing 38 percent of the world’s production, and about 60 percent of the export trade. But ethanol has taken 40 percent of US corn production, resulting in higher grain and food prices. With world oil prices reaching $113 per barrel, the use of ethanol becomes a more attractive alternative. But that means less corn will be used for food.

In addition, severe weather events in key grain exporting economies like the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia and Argentina have reduced harvests.

While the drought is so severe in Russia that wheat fields burst spontaneously into flames, in Canada and Australia the wheat fields are flooded so the farmers cannot plant.

Not only that, higher crude oil prices drive up the cost of farm inputs like fertilizer and irrigation. The high cost of transportation—due to higher fuel prices—from farm to market also drives food prices up.

And while world grain consumption is increasing, world production is decreasing. Rain decreased the Canadian crop and its quality, especially the protein levels. With little protein, cattle, hogs and chicken don’t grow. In Germany, rains during harvest time reduced 50 percent of the harvest to below milling quality. In Russia, drought reduced production by 30 percent. And in Australia, while drought reduced the harvest in the west, rains in the east decreased the quality of the crop.

Bad news: The world oil production is decreasing. There are no new oil fields being discovered. And the oil under the desert sands are running out. In contrast, world demand for oil is increasing. So where will the supply of fuel come from? From bio-fuel. And that means more food crops would be diverted to bio-fuel.

More bad news: While the world consumption for biofuels is increasing and world oil production is decreasing, the hectarage devoted to grains is being reduced. So what can the ordinary citizens do besides paying through the nose? Answer: Use less fuel and tighten your belts.

How about using cassava flour, coconut flour, sweet potato (which we have plenty of) and other substitutes to add to wheat flour to bake bread?

Answer: Yes, to a limited extent. Cassava, coconut and sweet potato don’t have gluten which makes the bread rise. Too much of them would result in hard, hard-to-chew bread.

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