No Free Lunch

Boosting our food security

SINGAPORE, ACCORDING to the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), was the world’s second most food secure country in 2015, next to the United States. Food security, as formally defined, is when people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life. The GFSI, as developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), is constructed from 28 unique indicators and “considers the core issues of affordability, availability, and quality and safety across a set of 109 countries.”

The same index ranked the Philippines 72nd among 109 countries rated, scoring 49.4 out of a possible 100. We ranked 73rd in food affordability, 66th in availability, and 68th in quality and safety, while 16.2 percent of our population was undernourished. Singapore, with an overall score of 88.2, ranked first in food affordability, 11th in availability, and 13th in quality and safety, and had zero undernourishment.


What about our other Asean neighbors? Malaysia ranked 34th overall with a score of 69, ranking 40th, 29th and 36th on food affordability, availability, and quality and safety, respectively, with undernourishment incidence at 5 percent. Thailand ranked 52nd overall, with respective subrankings of 46th, 51st and 61st, and undernourishment rate of 5.8 percent. Vietnam ranked 65th overall, with subrankings of 69th, 52nd and 69th, and undernourishment of 8.3 percent. Meanwhile, Indonesia ranked 74th overall (worse than us), with subrankings of 74th, 72nd and 88th, although its undernourishment incidence of 9.1 percent is better than ours.

Now consider these facts: Singapore imports over 90 percent of all the food consumed in that country. Malaysia imports 30-40 percent of its total rice requirements. Thailand and Vietnam, on the other hand, are among the biggest rice exporters in the world. And yet, Singapore is rated the most food secure country in the Asean, followed by Malaysia, with both doing far better than rice-surplus countries Thailand and Vietnam. It ought to be clear, then, that food security means far more than producing one’s own food supplies. As the above shows, food self-sufficiency—or even having a substantial surplus—does not necessarily make a country’s people more food secure.


Under the GFSI, food affordability measures the consumers’ ability to buy food, their vulnerability to price shocks, and the presence of programs and policies to support them when shocks occur. It considers such factors as food’s share in household spending, population living on less than $2 per day, and average income relative to food price levels. It also looks at farmers’ access to financing, and the presence of food safety nets such as in-kind food transfers and school feeding programs.

Food availability measures the sufficiency of the national food supply, risk of supply disruption, national capacity to disseminate food, and research efforts to expand agricultural output, among others. It considers public expenditures on agricultural research and development; agricultural infrastructure such as crop storage facilities, roads and ports; volatility of agricultural production; political instability (which may disrupt food access through such avenues as transportation blocks or reduced food aid commitments); and food losses and wastage, among other factors.

Food quality and safety measures the variety and nutritional quality of average diets, as well as the safety of food. It considers factors such as diet diversification (i.e., share of nonstarchy foods), nutritional standards, protein quality, access to potable water, and existence of an agency to ensure the health and safety of food. In assessing all these, the EIU compiles data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, and government databases. The result is a rich and fairly robust measure of countries’ state of food security.

Seeing food security in this holistic perspective ought to disabuse those who have made an obsession of full rice self-sufficiency of the misplaced notion that self-sufficiency will bring Filipinos food security. I have constantly argued that the more we insist on pursuing full rice self-sufficiency, the more we are making most Filipinos food insecure, by making the staple much more expensive than it needs to be, especially to the poor. The sooner we help marginal rice farmers shift to more lucrative crops while boosting productivity assistance to those rice farms best endowed for it, the sooner we can bring the cost of rice closer to that in our neighbors—and in turn, the more food secure Filipinos, especially the poor, will become.

Romblon and Benguet would be foolhardy to insist on growing all their rice requirements when these can come from surplus provinces like Iloilo and Nueva Ecija. By the same token, Malaysia and the Philippines need not aspire to grow all the rice they need. Not all of Asean possess the rich alluvial soils of the Mekong delta. But as a region, it collectively produces a net surplus of rice, and can continue doing so well into the future. Food security in Asean is best pursued at the regional level; that’s what the Asean Economic Community is all about. Rice could then be cheaper for all, and Asean peoples, especially those in the rice-deficit countries like ours, would emerge much more food secure.

We in the Philippines can then strengthen other high-value farm commodities long underfunded owing to the undue bias for rice. We can also better address our need for protein—and other nutrient-rich foods as well, yet a further boost to our food security.

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TAGS: economy, food, food security, GFSI, Global Food Security Index, opinion
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