By Dr. Emil Q. Javier
‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ – Robert Kennedy
The contention that our obsession with rice, and consequently the long-standing rice self-sufficiency policy stand in the way of a more productive and competitive agriculture has some validity to it. Public resources monopolized by the national rice program might have been better spent on other commodities with higher returns and where we enjoy some comparative advantage.
However, the complete narrative is more complicated and nuanced.
Consider the following:
Rice is the staple of most Filipinos. This cultural bias for rice is a characteristic we share with our Asian neighbors. India, China, Japan, and Korea are as protective of their domestic rice industries as we are, perhaps even more so. We are therefore not alone in obsessively looking after our rice needs.
The bulk of our public expenditures in agriculture are on irrigation, farm-to-market roads, research and extension and credit. Their full attribution to rice is incorrect. These irrigated areas while devoted to rice for now can be planted to corn, legumes, vegetables, and some fruits and also developed into fishponds.
For our long-term food security these investments need to be made anyway whether we devote these farmlands to rice or other crops.
The fact is we have the means to meet all our rice requirements. From 3.3 tons palay per hectare, we need only to raise our average productivity to 3.7 tons per hectare. But even now the average yields of the top ten rice producing provinces led by Davao del Sur, Nueva Ecija, Occidental Mindoro, Isabela and Cagayan is 4.0 tons per hectare. The better farmers in these provinces average 6.9 tons palay per hectare.
Henry Lim’s SL Agritech hybrids contract growers in Laguna, Mindoro and Nueva Ecija easily make 7.3 tons per hectare.
However, the income per hectare obtained by farmers from many other crops are often much higher than that from rice. Therefore, where the ecological conditions allow and where markets can be organized, diversification away from rice makes more sense from a total welfare point of view.
Therefore, while attaining 100 percent rice self-sufficiency is physically attainable it is probably not a wise goal in terms of increasing incomes and alleviating poverty among farmers.
What Then Do We Do With Rice?
The Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP) offers three broad directions:
1)Further intensification of rice production in favorable areas in order to be competitive with imports,
2)Diversification into other crops and aquaculture to raise farmers’ incomes, and
3)Promotion of brown rice and white corn grits as substitute staples for better nutrition (and reduce demand for rice).
Further intensification of rice productions in favorable areas in order to be competitive with imports
With the use of modern varieties and with proper fertilization, our irrigated lowland rice areas are as productive as the well-watered farms in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The average yields of relatively well-managed irrigated rice crops in the region gravitate to about 6.0 tons palay per hectare.
The challenge is at what cost. Our cost of producing palay is R12 per kilogram compared with about P7 per kilogram in Vietnam and R10 per kilogram in Thailand.
Philippine rice is not competitive with Thai and Vietnamese rice because of our labor costs. Our competitors have far more tractors for land preparation and grain combines for harvesting and threshing. We therefore have no choice but to further mechanize all stages of the rice production cycle from land preparation to transplanting, harvesting, threshing all the way to drying.
Instead of transplanting seedlings which is very laborious we should further refine the technology for direct seeding as they do in large areas in Thailand, Vietnam, and India.
The further intensification of rice production in favorable areas must have for its major planks: 1) all-out planting of very high yielding hybrids and certified inbred varieties, 2) optimum application of fertilizers approaching the recommended rate of 150 kilograms of NPK per hectare, 3) full mechanization, including direct seeding, and 4) improvement of management of irrigation systems and timely delivery of water.
Diversification into other crops and aquaculture to raise farmers’ incomes
Rice, important as it is, is not the whole of agriculture. Rice remains as the number one crop in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. But they have succeeded in broadening the base of their agriculture by growing oil palm, rubber, coffee, cacao black pepper, and other fruit crops for export.
This is where we fell short compared with our more successful neighbors. We got stuck with rice, corn, and coconut which are low-margin crops while they moved on to higher money-making crops like oil palm, rubber, coffee, cacao, black pepper and other tree crops as pointed out by Rolando Dy in his new book “Agribusiness and Rural Progress,” UAP 2017 (more about this excellent book later).
There are plenty of opportunities to create more livelihoods, raise productivity and increase farmers’ incomes from the production and processing of vegetables, legumes, fruit crops, ornamentals and industrial crops like oil palm, rubber, coffee, cacao and black pepper.
These commodities grow best in different ecologies and natural resource endowments and are highly dependent upon access to markets. Each would require dedicated commodity programs and are better concentrated/clustered in specific locations to attain economies of scale from primary production to processing and marketing for domestic consumption or exports.
With many of these commodities, land consolidation and contract farming might be more suitable business models to overcome the usual constraints of access to new genetic materials, superior technology, affordable credit and stable, profitable markets.
Promoting brown rice and white corn grits for better nutrition (and to reduce demand for rice)
Our economy has passed the stage when most people die due to communicable diseases because of lack of nourishment, lack of access to clean water and problems of sanitation. Now the common causes of mortality are heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and kidney failure.
These are diseases of affluence and lifestyle commonly associated with smoking, lack of exercise, and most importantly unhealthy diets.
Brown rice compared with white polished rice is richer in proteins, vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. White corn grits which are popular in parts of Visayas and Mindanao are likewise healthier than white polished rice. Both have low glycemic index, good for people with diabetes.
The grain milling recovery of brown rice is 10 percent higher than that of white polished rice. We are perennially short of about 10 percent in our rice production. If all Filipinos are persuaded to switch to brown rice, we do not need to import rice.
The Departments of Health (DOH), Local Governments (DILG), Education (DepEd), Social Welfare (DSWD), Agriculture (DA), and Science and Technology (DOST) ought to come together to mount a concerted national campaign to promote brown rice consumption.
To begin, National food Authority (NFA) should source all its palay requirements from Filipino famers. However, NFA should not polish its rice and produce only brown rice. With brown rice they will have 10 percent more healthful grains to distribute to poor Filipinos during calamities.
White corn grits are cheaper and more healthful than white polished rice. The Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) recently developed a white corn variety with high protein quality (more complete protein with higher lysine). A pilot test of 50:50 rice-white corn mixture is proving to be very popular to residents in Los Baños community, few of whom are traditional corn eaters.
Farmers make less on white corn compared with yellow corn because of the low yields of currently available open-pollinated white corn varieties. The DA should challenge the seed industry to develop white corn hybrids with yields comparable to yellow corn hybrids to encourage more upland farmers to plant white corn.
For cultural reasons as well as because of climate and geography, rice will remain as our most important crop just like our ASEAN neighbors Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam who like us have sizeable populations.
However, the margins per hectare from rice is lower than that from many alternative crops. Thus, our rainfed and upland rice farmers are better off diversifying away from rice, provided markets are organized for their produce.
The national purpose ought to be not necessarily producing more rice but producing rice at a lower competitive cost to make food affordable to the poor.
However for the farmers and their families, including the even more numerous landless workers, the objective ought to be creating more jobs in the countryside and increasing their incomes through crop diversification and multiple cropping.
As long as rice self-sufficiency is a national aspiration not a fixed target, we will be alright.
Finally, we will still need a national agency like NFA to maintain buffer stocks and to distribute grains during calamities. However, NFA should source its reserve stock from local rice farmers. Our economic managers are right: Commercial imports of rice should be left to the private sector. No need for NFA to incur more losses.
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback , email firstname.lastname@example.org.