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Grain matters

Uriel Quilinguing .

FOOD stability was, is and will always be a compelling issue. It must be a priority agenda of the present administration and included in the political platforms of senatorial and congressional aspirants. And when it comes to food, the focus must be on production and distribution of stable, quality and affordable supply rice for every Filipino. Importation should be the last resort.

The government resorted to rice importation last year after an artificial shortage resulted to price hikes. Fortunately, supply of rice stabilized before the year ended. Now, 2018 can be described as a year when a record-setting inflation brought so much misery to many Filipinos. Even the man-on-the-street would have a definition of what inflation is, without the need for economic and financial experts because prices of rice and other basic commodities soared beyond the reach of common consumers. 

Last week, just a day before it could lapse into law, the President signed Republic Act No. 11203 which he and his policy advisers think can ensure rice supply stability and at the same time promote the country’s P360-billion rice industry. This is being called as “Rice Tariffication Law.”

Entitled “An Act Liberalizing the Importation and Trading of Rice, Lifting for the Purpose the Quantitative Imports Restriction on Rice,” the law allows unimpeded rice imports as long as the importer pays the pegged 35-percent and 50-percent tariff from Southeast Asian members and non-Asean countries, respectively. This clipped the National Food Authority’s functions and powerful hand in rice importation, reducing it into an attached agency to the Department of Agriculture.

This law, which will take effect on March 5, this year, is an admission on the part of government that it cannot address the rice supply problem without resorting to importation, and that, it cannot crush the so-called rice cartel and run after rice smugglers. So it’s better to legitimize their existence. And to appease the country’s 2.4 million rice farmers, the law provides that P10 billion of the revenues from import duties (35-percent and 50-percent tariff) will be allocated for the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund for six years. This, of course, would a boon to the rice industry if realized and utilized to support the palay farmers in whatever form it may be.    

But one cannot wait for six years since every Filipino needs rice every day.  In 2017, this country attained a 96-percent rice sufficiency on its own after posting a 19.28-million metric ton palay production—the highest ever. Hence, the country imported only seven percent of the rice requirements that year. That was encouraging and clearly show farm productivity can be improved and produce even more.

Rightly so, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol projected a three percent improvement last year. But that was not realized since the volume of palay harvest slightly dropped to 19.06 mmt and the reduction was attributed to losses due to “Basyang” and other typhoons that year.  Because of that, rice importation was resorted to. 

Not everything that was imported and/or harvested from the farm goes to the dining table since so much is lost in the supply chain. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority almost 900,000 mt or 6.5 percent of the entire palay production are lost every year due to improper harvesting, milling, handling and storage. The same was found out in a study which the Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice) conducted.

Aside from supply losses due to mishandling from the farms to the market, almost 300,000 mmt of rice also goes to wastes in the households, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) reported. The FNRI found out that each Filipino waste about 3.29 kilograms of rice every year, leftovers on plates and tables as well as those that are retained in rice-cookers and thrown away.  In 2016, the average consumption of every Filipino is estimated by PSA at 109.875 kilograms a year, lower than the 114.265 kgs. recorded in 2012.

While some restaurants offer unliice as marketing come-ons, half-cup rice should also be served if customers demand for it. Many have been skipping rice for bread, pizza, pasta and noddles either for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Filipinos who have migrated and adopted the culture of countries where they are in learned to live without rice. Many farmers, while waiting for the harvest season, have to contend with root crops, unripe bananas for food.

Mechanization in farming methods, harvesting and milling could make the industry more efficient and proper way of packaging, hauling, repacking, food preparation and serving could help save every grain of rice. 

The idea of creating an agency tasked to make sure there is enough rice is commendable, hence the National Food Authority should stay even if some sectors consider it to be inutile. Those who are in are the ones causing the agency’s inefficiency so they should be replaced.

Let’s debunk the claim that all rice-eating countries are poor. This is so because so much resources are needed to produce rice in terms of time spent, manual labor, and investments. Despite the technologies and new palay varieties, it still take four to five months before one can harvest rice. Harvesting, milling and transport takes a lot of time and additional cost. And while fastfood is the common practice, still once has to wait for 30 to 60 minutes for rice grains to be eaten.

Ideally, a country which has secured its independence and proclaimed its sovereignty must be able to survive on its own, not only in protecting its territory, in keeping its international integrity, but also providing sustainable food supply to its people. These, however, have not been addressed appropriately in the past while the present leadership keeps on putting the blame on the previous administration.

If huge losses in the supply chain is reduced if not totally eliminated and if every rice eater is mindful of how every grain of rice is produced, there could be enough rice supply for more than 105 million mouths to feed.

(Uriel C. Quilinguing is a former editor-in-chief of this paper.)


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