The UN-backed Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched the International Year of Rice in 2004 to address a major global problem: Increased, sustainable rice production as key to global food security. Rice is the world's most popular food, a symbol of cultural identity and global unity. It shapes religious observances, festivals, customs, cuisine and celebrations. Yet all is not well in the world of rice. Growth in rice yields is slowing, and is already falling behind population growth. Most rice farmers are poor, but national policies often favor the consumer and export market.
Rice is the staple food for over half of the world's population and FAO projections show that by 2030, total demand for rice will be 38 per cent higher than the annual amounts produced between 1997 and 1999. In order to meet future demand, new methodologies and production technologies are necessary because land and water resources are under threat.
Rice: The issues
Since the 1970s, demand for rice has been met due to high-yielding varieties and improved production methods. Irrigation was key -- during the green revolution irrigated area grew by 4 to 5 million hectares per year. Today, as populations grow, land and water resources for rice production are diminishing.
Excessive use of pesticides in rice farming pollutes water and creates health hazards. Intensive irrigation can cause salinization and water logging. Flooded rice is a major source of methane emission while the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers produces nitrous oxide -- both are greenhouse gases linked to global warming. One solution is integrated pest and crop management, which teaches farmers to monitor the pests in their fields and adopt practices that reduce the need for pesticides.
Small-scale rice farmers may never be rich, but they too can benefit from improved technologies and methods, if the improvements are designed with small-scale needs in mind. Double-cropping with tomatoes or cabbage, for example, can increase income. Farmers have less access to credit, farm inputs, marketing facilities and extension services - a missed opportunity to boost production and reduce poverty. National policies often favor the consumer instead of being pro-poor. Increased rice production also means more jobs in support sectors such as milling, marketing and trading.
In addition to being a source of energy, rice provides thiamine, riboflavin and niacin and can be improved by using traditional selective plant breeding and by simply omitting the polishing process that removes the bran (brown rice.).
Biotechnology (genetic engineering) can help increase yields and reduce the need for inputs. But there are human and environmental safety concerns, and benefits should flow not only to multinational companies but also to farmers.
High-yielding rice varieties arguably take credit for much of the remarkable gain in rice production over the past 35 years. Yet since 1966, yields have been stagnant. Unfortunately, the cost of hybrid seed production is four to five times higher than normal seeds - out of reach for most poor farmers. The local experience of hybrids did not encourage widespread use.
After the harvest
A significant portion is lost after harvesting by hand harvesting and threshing, which are still common, rudimentary grain drying prevails and rice is poorly stored. Often 10 to 37 percent of the harvest is lost, especially in the rainy season. Improved silos, and new varieties more tolerant to delayed harvesting would help.
Drop export restrictions
The surfeit of worrisome news induced some worry wrinkles on Pinoy officialdom. The
ADB wants NFA phased out
"The targeted safety net programs will ensure that the remaining subsidized rice programs are reserved for the poor, without depressing farmgate prices," the ADB report said. "The government will retain the regulatory function of maintaining a maximum 30-day buffer stock (on 1 July of each year) to supplement the stocks of paddy farmers and private traders during the traditional lean season and guard against price volatility due to natural calamities. Agricultural scientists who did the study say that even in that basic role, the NFA had failed.
Blueprint for food security
The strategy and the threats to self sufficiency
Increasing irrigated hectares requires more sources of impounded water to offset the demand of population center needs. Untrammeled population fertility will intensify the competition for water. Innovative concepts, radical if you will, must be applied to address funding and other obstacles: construct mini-dams to impound water for multi-purpose use – sanitation, irrigation, power generation with mini-generators. The concept averts problems of big dams (rights of way, power transmission losses, more)
No to FIELDS of hybrid seeds
Back in 2001, under the government's Hybrid Rice Commercialization Program (HRCP) - then attached to the Office of the President but later passed on to the Philippine Rice Institute (Philrice) of the Department of Agriculture – participating farmers received subsidized seeds and fertilizers at discounted rates. They also benefited from guaranteed crop insurance and enhanced production loans. It was a neat package that naturally attracted many capital-poor farmers.
For some of these farmers, the rice hybrids did increase yields, but for many, the crop failed. Reports flooded in of standing crops not forming any grain and increased incidences of destructive pests. It was a disaster that the government refused to neither acknowledge nor address. Instead it beefed up its hybrid rice promotion strategy in the media (tapping groups like the Philippine Science Journalists Association) and directed its PR department to focus on a few, often exaggerated, 'success stories'. New ways to extend its subsidies were devised (e.g. the National Food Authority putting priority on buying hybrid rice instead of inbred or traditional varieties) to keep hybrid rice production from sinking. Few farmers ended up profiting from this largess; rather the money flowed into the pockets of the rural banks and private loan institutions, the suppliers of machineries, the contractors of post-harvest facilities, and most importantly, the agro-chemical and seeds companies.
Private seed companies are the big beneficiaries of the hybrid rice program. Because of the subsidies, they get a market that they'd otherwise never have. Under the
SL Agritech, a somewhat mysterious private tie-up between Filipino, Chinese and
Despite the subsidy, however, hybrid rice struggles to take root in the
But the policy change didn't last long. It now appears that the government is just reorganizing the subsidy scheme again. Under the guise of meeting millennium goal targets, the Department of Agriculture reconstituted its subsidy scheme by forming 'rice clusters' seemingly to have more control of hybrid rice growing in the country. Farmers will be organized 'geographically' based on a set of contiguous rice areas of about 100 hectares within one-kilometer radius in a municipality. Farmers belonging to cluster areas will be assured of technical support, and will be given greater access to credit, high quality seeds, farm machinery and fertilizer discounts. They will also be assured of water supply and access to post-harvest facilities. This approach supposedly makes the GMA rice program easier to implement, monitor and document, as it organizes individual farmers into a manageable entity (a cluster) and links them to bigger communities.
(Note: in some areas up north farmers have been told they will not get irrigation water unless they use hybrid rice.)
The GMA rice program that dispenses this subsidy envisions “a sustainable self-sufficient rice economy” – projecting a total of 16.67 million tons of total paddy production - this year (2007). But some farmers' groups are not convinced about the subsidy scheme nor about the target production for hybrid rice. Sentro Saka, a national network of farmers organizations, claims that there have been no significant reductions on the country's rice imports since the hybrid rice program was launched six years ago. In fact, for the most part, rice imports have consistently increased, this year being the highest so far, projected to be about 1.7 million metric tons. The group also claims that although the Department of Agriculture previously boasted about the GMA rice program being the answer to rice production shortages, the Department's own data shows that hybrid rice barely contributed to the overall production.
- Seed cost was almost 2.5 times more for hybrids than for conventional high yielding varieties.
- The expected output price was lower for hybrid rice grain than actual price for conventional high yielding varieties.
- The hybrid rice seed production usually requires more labor specially to accomplish certain critical farm operations like row planting, supplementary pollination, leaf clipping, gap filling, rouging and GA3 application etc. Hence the cost incurred on seed production was found to be high.
- Hybrids require more doses of fertilizers.
- Hybrid seed is not suitable for second crop.
Bureau of Agricultural Statistics 2007 data for a crude roadmap to rice self-sufficiency: “Palay” (unhusked rice) production was 16,240,000 metric tons. At a milling rate of 65 percent, rice produced was 10,556,000 metric tons. Out of this, 2.0 percent was used as seeds and 10.5 percent was lost in processing. As a result, only 9,237,000 metric tons reached the dinner table.
In the global context, food is a complex political issue and quick fixes are not enough. Without a long-term plan that takes a bold stand against the trade distortions that have contributed to the crisis, any action will just be placebo pill. Continuous food crises will be the new global norm unless the international community works together to find fair and sustainable solutions to tackle the root causes of global food insecurity.