After a weekend trip to the Ilocos where I saw so many plots of land along the way unplanted for anything, whether on plains or in low hillsides, I and my travel companions began to reminisce about the Taiwan countryside.
Having been posted there for five years since 2016 till 2021, I saw for myself how serious the Taiwanese were about food security and agricultural productivity.
Travelling by land from Taipei in the north to Kaohsiung in the south, one could see that hardly any plot of land was not planted to something. Even between factories, people planted rice or vegetables, fruits or flowers.
In southernmost Pingtung beside the sea, salt water is pumped into swimming pool-sized and aerated ponds where groupers were raised for markets in Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Shanghai, apart from local restaurants.
The value of grouper exports alone ran into billions of dollars each year.
Guess where they got the “mother” grouper from where they built up their stock?
From Philippine seas, where lapu-lapu (our term for grouper, which always raised the hackles of Cebuanos and Pres. Duterte) used to thrive in wild abandon. I saw mother groupers as long as a meter in length.
Just as the Taiwanese got their bangus fingerlings from our “sabalo” in the sixties, now they export to us fingerlings from which we raise our milkfish, a food staple.
Ironic, but sadly true.
One of the highlights of a trip up North is Ilocano cuisine, from bagnet to thickly sauced dinuguan and higado, to my favorite sinanglaw and pinakbet, and of course longanisa from Vigan or Batac, both redolent with garlic and spices, and not the sweet and sticky version from some regions which I have always disdained from childhood.
Tagalogs and Kapampangans have their version of pinakbet, which Tagalogs call “bulanglang,” but the Ilocano version is inimitable.
Theirs is not sautéed in oil, the vegetables of freshly-picked dark green sitaw, ampalaya, okra, kalabasa, eggplants and sigarillas fresh and never over-cooked.
The concoction is salted by bagoong (Editor’s note: The Ilocanos take pride in their original pronunciation of boggoong, not the Tagalogs’ bagoong) and topped with either bagnet or grilled fish.
Meanwhile, kids in school are taught that adobo (in Luzon) or lechon (Visayas) are the national food. I suggest we change these to pinakbet, which after all is served everywhere in the archipelago these days.
Besides, pinakbet makes use of lowland vegetables, easier and cheaper to grow than highland vegetables.
My reason for that suggestion is so kids will learn to eat vegetables. A recent survey showed that 74 percent of our kids are veggie-averse.
Besides, lechon is fiesta fare, savored by the poor only on special occasions, and while adobo is eaten by all classes; it isn’t good if the pork isn’t liempo laced with fat, or brown chicken meat is used instead of the healthier white breast part.
We have to wean away our younger generations from thinking fried food and hotdogs, served by our fast-food chains, ingredients for which are mostly imported and laced with chemical preservatives, are good for them.
(If teachers show a video of what goes into hotdog processing, many will have second thoughts about ingesting it.)
One observation whenever we take trips to the provinces is fast-food chains have taken over regional or provincial fare, in the process “killing” good native cuisine served in small, family-operated eateries.
Note how a huge mall peppered with fast-food chain eateries in Baguio, for instance, has practically killed the nice little restaurants in Session Road.
Well, it has happened practically everywhere.
Or the Metro Manila food chains taking over the business of small, lutong bahay eateries in Calabarzon, some parts of Quezon province excluded.
Thank the native Ilocanos for preserving their cuisine.
Dawang’s in San Nicolas beside Laoag, and Makkan in Agoo, La Union still serve the same native delicacies as before, patronized by locals and balikbayans alike.
Philstar columnist Iris Gonzales wrote about alternative staple foods, as suggested by 2021 TOFIL Awardee Roberto P. Alingog, to which this writer agrees fully.
Why not educate our people to eat camote, white corn, cassava and raw saba bananas, instead of rice, rice and more rice?
Our forefathers used to eat these staples, and, in fact, many of the rural poor would switch to these when the price of rice became too high, but lately the availability of these carbohydrate sources has been made scarce by the DA’s obsession with rice.
In Visayas and Mindanao, the elder generations had white corn, saba and cassava for staples, until rice became affordable and accessible to all.
These alternative foods are in fact more nutritious than rice, and are way cheaper to plant.
It makes more sense to revive demand for these starches and promote their consumption than lose billions of pesos subsidizing a false dream of 20-peso rice.
We used to import 10 percent of our rice requirements. But after the RTL was passed, our rice imports grew way too much, a disincentive for domestic farmers.
Last year, we imported 3.8 million tons, or 76 million bags, equivalent to 3.8 billion kilos. Why, that is now 27 percent of our annual rice consumption!
And yet, DA keeps telling us domestic palay production is increasing; that it supplies 90 percent of our needs.
Pity the poor palay farmer, caught between increased input costs and competition from imported milled rice.
There is so much that the right education can do to change our consumption habits as a people.
Teaching the young to eat nutritious, locally grown food, particularly vegetables, will go a long way not only to help solve our food security problems, but likewise protect the health of our people.
Teach them that oily and starchy fast foods are bad for the health, and so are sugared drinks. A penchant for eating these types of food promote diabetes and heart ailments as people age, and now, as in America, even among the young.
Those consumption habits have been increasingly aped by our young.
LGUs should get into the act, by incentivizing their constituents to plant in every unused plot of land, as they do in Taiwan, China and Japan.
In the congested cities, we can promote vertical farming, the technology for which, including drip irrigation, is easily available, as practiced in Israel and Taiwan among other places.
Here in Metro Manila, I know of at least two visibly successful projects on vertical farming of vegetables: in Navotas and Taguig.
They grow mostly romaine lettuce, or the native variety, and supply these to restaurants for salads and lumpia.
The other food security issue we should address, and which I mentioned in previous columns, is the negative effect of the lack of qualified farm extension workers and trainors, an unintended result of the Local Government Code’s devolution of responsibilities.
Again, using Taiwan as an example, research is used to benefit farmers who are taught what to plant for the type of soil they have, when to plant, when and with what to fertilize, and other useful tips on how to earn as much as is possible from even small plots of land.
There is no need to re-invent the wheel. We just have to follow best practices, and the countries from which we can get these technologies and templates are all too willing to share.
Latest reports show our agricultural trade deficit has ballooned 36.3 percent year-on-year in the last quarter of 2022, food imports outpacing our agricultural exports of bananas, coconut oil and pineapples.
We import rice, yellow corn, soybeans, galunggong, pork, deboned chicken, beef, offal, vegetables like carrots, broccoli, potatoes, garlic and, not to forget, onions. Why, even the pork skins that Lapid converts to chicharrones are imported.
For a country with 114 million mouths to feed and growing, yet with so much land yet uncultivated, this demonstrates how food insecure we are.
We need to plant, plant, plant, and plant better more.