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Friday, May 31, 2024

No quick fixes

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“We need bold directions, because as we all know, food, and not only rice, is life”

UNFORTUNATELY for government, and woe unto us consumers, there are no quick fixes for the inadequacy of food at affordable prices.

Long has government been out of touch with the realities of the farm, and the market, that we now reap the wages of such neglect.

First off, let us forget that chimera of promised self-sufficiency in rice.

In 2010, when I was at NFA, I parroted the DA mantra of self-sufficiency, because I had to, but, after looking at the figures and the variables, I stopped mouthing the unreachable dream.

Not all lands can be planted to rice. Not all lands have access to enough water. Grass, which rice is, requires a lot of water, and in the case of rice, it is 5,000 liters of H20 per kilo of production.

Not all soils are palay-friendly, certainly not the clay-rich soils of most of Mindanao, which are best utilized for tree and fruit plantations.

Which is why that 20 peso per kilo rice was the most impossible of promises, and whoever told candidate Marcos that during the campaign should now be exiled into Turtle Island or Mavulis.

I do not understand why the highly-educated Balisacan of NEDA still parrots that promise, while others downplay it as an “aspiration” that can at least be approximated.

Why, not even 25 pesos is doable, unless government subsidizes by the tens of billions.

DA and NIA tout a target of achieving 95-98 percent self-sufficiency by 2028. Even that is doubtful.

Better to gradually target from 85-90 percent for the next five years, and amend our procurement laws to allow government to buy long, instead of on a need basis.

We import some three million tons a year these days, and all of that through the private sector, the buying costs of which are volatile and the selling prices left to market forces which in this country can be easily manipulated through hoarding as it passes through several cogs in the value chain.

Since rice is staple, and some even say “rice is life,” why not incentivize our rice traders and millers to put up rice mills in countries like Myanmar and Papua, and then sell the milled rice to our market?

If we buy only when there is a “shortage,” which is always, then we are at the mercy of exporting nations and their traders.

Western economic “advisers” always charge corruption with government-to-government deals, because these are not friendly to their “free-market” mantra, where their grain oligopolists (yes Virginia, the whole commodity market is cartelized all over the world) stand to gain through market volatility.

We are Asian, and the biggest rice producers are Asian, in fact, ASEAN.

Then again, there is agrarian reform, where we gave away land at marginal sizes of three to five hectares, and now on second-generation transfers, absolutely un-economic.

We’ve been talking about consolidation of ARBs to come up with economies of scale, starting with President Erap’s “corporatization”, and, before that, cooperatives where success, especially on rice, has been spotty.

Our land reformed farmers cannot mechanize; cannot modernize; cannot even buy in bulk inputs such as seeds and fertilizers.

They dig shallow wells or rely on rainwater when NIA is unable to supply them with irrigation. Rainwater is absent in El Nino; shallow wells have to be pumped up with petrol, which is expensive as well.

But if DAR and DA were to consolidate ARBs into more economical 100 hectare areas, and then incentivize business firms to use their corporate social responsibility initiatives into helping manage these, with a government agency (such as NFA before a rushed RTL castrated it) buying the produce at guaranteed prices, input costs reimbursed to the CSR-partnered private firms, then likely we can increase tonnage per hectare.

There are details too lengthy to this proposal for me to write in an article.

Think San Miguel, or MVP’s conglomerate, or Aboitiz, etc., all of whom have CSR programs while having adequate market reach apart from their army of consumer-employees.

As we write this article, the President directed the DA and DOF to craft easier processes to allow more food imports for the private sector. It is clearly a band-aid solution, if at all, to sticky food price inflation.

Will it work? I doubt it. The farming sector, the livestock producers are understandably wary, even if they themselves know it is a needless shot in the arm, optics and illusion at best.

In Mindoro last Tuesday, the President was assuring onion growers of cold storage facilities, palay farmers of better post-harvest facilities, etc., etc., etc.

Long have everybody and their mothers known these solutions, through years and decades. And it’s been two years when even “aspirations” have become unreachable.

Ano ba talaga, Kuya?

We need bold directions, because as we all know, food, and not only rice, is life.

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