Saturday, April 16, 2011

Food first

When President Benigno S. Aquino III asked Agriculture secretary Proceso Alcala three times a few weeks ago whether the country will have sufficient rice supply in the next two years, Alcala was said to have unequivocally, without winching, assured the President that yes, we will be sufficient in the commodity.
According to my source, Alcala told the President that by 2013, we will be even exporting rice.

Aquino’s persistence on the issue of rice indicates the administration’s priority: a Philippines whose citizens’ stomachs are full.

The previous unlamented administration also has food as an item on its agenda, but Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s officials interpreted it in a complex manner. They thought Gloria’s “food on every table” campaign pitch should begin with the planting cycle, thus they conceived of millions of hectares of lands planted to rice and drowned in fertilizer, so they diverted money, loads and tons of it, into their pockets and bought cheap liquid fertilizer and dumped these into farmers’ backyards.

Stumped, because the farmers knew nothing about liquid fertilizer, they used it to water coconut trees. That’s what happened in Romblon, a non-rice producing province.

The result was a nation getting a headache, not a full stomach, from the infamous fertilizer scam which to this day remains unresolved, the culprits unprosecuted.

Food first. That’s what Aquino III must be saying. In 2010, he went around the country, peddling this:

“From a government that merely conjures economic growth statistics that our people know to be unreal to a government that prioritizes jobs that empower the people and provide them with opportunities to rise above poverty.”

And this: “From treating the rural economy as just a source of problems to recognizing farms and rural enterprises as vital to achieving food security and more equitable economic growth, worthy of re-investment for sustained productivity.”

The voters agreed. I agree then as I agree now. Without food, we are weak and disoriented and become susceptible to diseases.

A hungry man hallucinates and entertains morbid thoughts, like marching on the streets and denouncing government. Foodlessness breeds social unrest and we can’t afford to have it now that we are embarking on gigantic socio-economic reforms.

Food production, of course, is complex and subject to competing policy interests. Do we, for example, allow more land to become commercial or let it remain a forest or a farm?

Do we, for instance, plant more crops, like cassava, for fuel and animal food or invest more in staple crops, like corn and rice, so we attain for Aquino his dream—our dream?

These are thoughts that bothered me after reading that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization had reported that its index of food prices in 2010 has registered the highest in the last 20 years.

The UNFAO said food prices soared 15 percent from October 2010 to January 2011 alone, thus “throwing an additional 44 million people in low- and middle-income countries into poverty.”

Are we seeing food riots in Manila’s streets soon?

No, if Secretary Alcala is to be believed. “We have plenty of rice. Our farms are bursting with harvest,” he said over radio station DZMM when interviewed by Noli de Castro, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s partner in leading the Filipinos believe from 2001 to 2010 that “food on every table” is at hand.

The former vice president, in his program, was fretting over an unverified report of the not-so-intelligent National Intelligence Coordinating Council, or NICA, that the administration of P-Noy is facing national security troubles because of foreseen rising rice prices and, possibly, rice shortages.

That Malacanang had quickly belied the report and that Sec. Alacala had debunked it should have signalled de Castro to stop dignifying the story. Better, it should have compelled the NICA head, whoever he is, or the author of the supposed report, to resign, out of delicadeza, or commit suicide.

But the NICA is dense, even if its function is only to “coordinate” (the worst word in the lingua franca of bureaucracy), intelligence gathering, not to gather it. It didn’t know that Alcala was doing his homework.

So was de Castro, who for two days in his program continued to make the trivial major or significant. Only when Alcala, and another ally of the previous regime, the mayor of Candaba, Pampanga, came out to present de Castro with facts, i.e., that the country is awash in rice and therefore, there is no need to import—or worst, die now of hunger—that the former No. 2 politician backtracked, his dirigible-sized ego punctured by a pin.

The newsreader-turned-vice-president-turned-newsreader should confine himself to reading the news, not to making a mountain out of molehill.

But I suppose he, like the rest of us, eats rice. Justified therefore was his worry about the rice shortage.

And I agree that we should worry.

I also agree that P-Noy should now step up his food sufficiency program and go round the country once again and use the Cory magic he inherited to inspire farmers to plant more. He can bring along his agriculture officials and be a Magsaysay: provide instant ground solutions to problems of access to technology, funds, and farm inputs.

He should think of food first, by electrocuting hoarders, breaking supply chain barriers by castrating cartels and poisoning middlemen impoverishing our farmers by their cut-throat prices and usurious rice planting financing schemes.

There is today in the United States a growing call from the Americans to slash the salary of the members of Congress to reduce the US budget deficit. We don’t have that kind of attitude here yet, but the President can take the cue. Put more money in agriculture so that the country can attain food self-sufficiency.

Food first. Thailand and our other neighbors have this policy and they now export rice and other food stuffs. In Thailand, for instance, the OTOP or one-town-one product strategy has worked wonders that there is today in Bangkok a mall which sells food produced by the kingdom’s rural towns. Thailand has even surpassed us in the export of patis, a Philippine original food ingredient.

Rising food prices can do us in, I assure myself. So while there is still time, let’s go back to the drawing board and consider food—and that means self-sufficiency in our staple stomach needs—an urgent priority.

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