Rice: a policy blind spot

The growing lines of the urban poor seeking their daily ration of rice are images suffused with political meaning.  Any regime that knows its politics cannot fail to see great danger looming ahead.  For nothing illustrates more sharply a crisis spinning out of control than angry people scrambling for food.

The Arroyo government is aware of this, and so it is adopting quick-fix measures to avert an imminent disaster.  It is scouring the cereal markets of the world for available rice and wheat at any price.  It is threatening rice traders who may be hoarding rice with instant imprisonment.  It is enlisting the help of the religious sector, particularly the Catholic Church, to distribute the vanishing commodity.

Beyond these short-term survival measures, the government has no substantive program to ensure rice and food security in the country. We can grow rice ourselves or we can import it.  Whatever lip service the government now pays to improving local rice production, it cannot deny that importation has long been its default answer to the country’s rice requirements.  Importation through the National Food Authority is easier than rehabilitating an abandoned agricultural sector. But, more importantly, as every political operator knows, it is also a wonderful tool of patronage and a quick source of political funds.

It is not the first time the country has had a rice crisis.  But past instances of rice scarcity were mainly caused by abnormal weather or a bad crop infestation.  Rice importation was a contingency measure meant to address an exigency.  Today, rice imports have become a permanent feature of our food situation, in much the same way the export of Filipino workers has become a major indispensable component of our employment program.  As a result, we have become more vulnerable than ever to the instabilities of the global food market.

The present rice crisis resonates perturbations in global demand and supply that are beyond our control.  Food prices are going up everywhere, echoing the phenomenal rise in the price of petroleum products.  There is very little that a small nation like ours can do to reverse this situation.

But we can do something to shield ourselves from the worst effects of what appears to be a long-term global food crisis.  We can start growing our basic food requirements all over again even if it may seem foolish today to aim for anything near self-sufficiency.  Our country is blessed with abundant agricultural land, even if we have become almost totally oblivious of its productive value by treating it merely as vacant space.

It would require tremendous will on the part of our national leadership to accomplish this, but this is what political responsibility ultimately means.  We have to begin with a clear-minded review of how a oncethriving agricultural economy threw away its natural advantages in exchange for the short-term gains of a service economy based primarily on the earnings of exported workers.

No one will surely claim responsibility for this disastrous shift.  For indeed the sad story of Philippine agriculture is a long complex narrative of unsound choices forced upon people, and a policy environment that consigned agriculture to benign neglect.  It is not an exaggeration to say that over the last three decades at least, our leaders have, by their routine decisions and directives, discouraged Filipinos from pursuing agriculture as a way of life.  As a result, farming schools and colleges of agriculture, that once flourished all over the country, have declined in importance or have realigned their courses away from farming in order to survive.

We bind the future by what we do or fail to do in the present.  By launching an agrarian reform program shot through with loopholes, we forced landowners to stop planting while waiting to effect the reclassification or conversion of their property to non-agriculture use. By not giving them support services, we forced small farmers and land reform beneficiaries to sell their farms and use the money to get overseas work.  By importing rice in large quantities in order to assure steady supply at regulated prices, we made it difficult for local rice growers to sell at prices that would allow them to recover their costs.

The dismantling of agriculture in our country is indeed not a deliberate policy.  It has been accomplished rather by a series of thoughtless omissions.  These omissions are the direct result of a way of seeing the world through the sole prism of OFW remittances. This perspective has exiled Philippine agriculture to a policy blind spot.

By this amazing act of willful blindness, we have failed to see what the widening patches of idle farm lands all over the country are telling us.  We have not noticed the overnight sprouting of housing projects on what used to be fertile irrigated farm land.  The easy availability of cheap imported rice has concealed from the general public the crisis of local agriculture.  The steady yearly outflow of Filipino workers, now beyond the one-million mark, has failed to alarm us.  For we have conditioned ourselves to associate it only with the inflow of remittances, rather than with the collapse of the rural economy.

The rice crisis, which can only become serious, forces us into a “gestalt switch” – a change of frame that will allow us hopefully to see what our blind spots have hidden from us.


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