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Figures that would make you want to cry

Look at these numbers: Rice yield in the Philippines is 3.9 metric tons per hectare; in Vietnam it’s 5.6 mt/ha. For corn, it’s 2.9 vs. 4.4; coconut 4.3 vs. 9.7; sugarcane 5.8 vs. 6.5; coffee 0.34 vs. 2.5; cassava 10.9 vs. 17.9.

It gets worse: Overall, the income per hectare is $340 per year vs. $1,063, while exports is $4 billion per year vs. $34 billion. Due to lower agricultural production, the Philippines is a “net importer” of food products (over $1 billion every year).  Vietnam produces more than what its population needs, enabling the country to be a “net exporter” of food products ($5.6 billion per annum).

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These comparative figures show that previous administrations failed dismally to look after the rural folk, to give their people enough low-cost food, and to generate wealth for the country.

In the Philippines, poverty is worst in agricultural areas with farmers among the least-paid workers, earning a measly P160 a day—that is, if they ever get paid at all (family members, who statistics say are part of the labor force, are paid nothing).

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A country with rich soils, favorable climate and plenty of space can’t feed its too rapidly growing population. This is a national disgrace. So it’s most welcome that the newly installed President Duterte, who comes from a rural area, has appointed a farmer on top of his agriculture department and has declared that agriculture will now finally be given the importance it deserves. I certainly hope he makes true this pronouncement.

Politicians are expert in making promises but demonstrably inept in fulfilling them, as the numbers I earlier cited in this piece prove. Duterte promises action, and in the first few weeks of his presidency, it looks like his administration has been doing a lot of “action” in many fields. So there’s hope.

I’m no agricultural expert, but some things seem pretty clear to me as to where the failures lie. I could be wrong, of course, but let me elaborate:

High on the list is water or the lack of water where it’s needed. Small dams and embankments, and canals connecting to larger dams, are needed. Collect the water when there’s too much of it (during La Niña) so we can provide enough for our farms when there’s none (El Niño). I leave government to decide on who pays for it, but I don’t like subsidizing anything without a strong justification.

The second is seed. I’m a firm believer in seeds modified to improve yield and to be resistant to diseases and bugs. If some people want “natural” food, fine; then let’s have boutique farms to provide them with what they want, at whatever cost. But make accessible affordable food to the majority of Filipinos.

Third on the list are the greedy, unconscionable middlemen who rip off the farmers and push their backs against the wall (read: unlivable income levels), and then sell what they squeeze from them, at excessive, unjustifiable price levels, to consumers who can ill-afford to pay. Take them out of the process.

Roads come next, particularly farm-to-market roads, which are essential to bringing farm products to the market, fresh and unbruised. Let’s have smooth, paved roads to link our farms to the markets.

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I have long argued that the law mandating the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program has a serious defect: It makes mandatory the breakup of all agricultural lands  (“CARP should remain a fish,” Opinion, 3/19/15). “All or nothing” is, almost always, not the way to go. Some crops need large-scale farming to be efficiently produced.

Also, large plantations need professional management. Many poor farmers would welcome working for a responsible plantation owner who provides them with a full-time jobs—as well as housing and medical facilities and free schooling for their families and children. With this kind of arrangement, we may even become a net exporter of agricultural products.

And let’s open long-term—at least, 50 years—agricultural leasing to foreigners. Let’s have Tyson, Kraft Heinz and Archer Daniels Midland producing here the raw materials they need for their worldwide markets. The benefits in the form of jobs created, civic works and community support more than justify this suggestion. Not too long ago, I argued that the National Food Authority be stripped of its power to engage in and control rice trading (“Give the consumer a break,” 11/12/15). If it were left to the market to freely trade rice, the retail price of rice would halve. On this, there was no reaction from the Aquino administration or the public. Does no one care that you could pay P19.80 per kilogram of rice instead of P33.08?

Perhaps Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol can take a serious, urgent look into this and keep in mind that rice self-sufficiency is not the way to go. Rice-sufficiency, yes. There must be an ample buffer stock (Secretary Piñol suggests six months) of rice, given the vagaries of weather that we endure. That stock can be enhanced with imports.

Let’s face it: Rice self-sufficiency has been a 70-year-long failure through 11 administrations. It will continue to be so; therefore let our farmers shift to more profitable crops and let’s just import the shortfall in rice production from those who produce rice cheaper.

By coincidence, Toti Chikiamco and Ciel Habito raised the same subject this week, highlighting the importance of dealing with the issue.

An estimated 4 million malnourished children in the country and 3.1 million families suffering involuntary hunger during the first quarter of 2016 (based on an SWS survey)—the figures would make you want to cry.

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E-mail: [email protected] Read my previous columns: www.wallacebusinessforum.com.

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TAGS: agriculture, Manny Piñol, Philippines, rice self-sufficiency, Vietnam
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