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Rice Crisis an Early Warning for Philippines’ Marcos
When rice disappears from the poor man's table, political support for the government wanes
By: Viswa Nathan
When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. decided to act as his own secretary of agriculture, he might have thought it could become the crowning glory of his presidency and seal the resurgence of the Marcoses. Now, after 15 months in office, it seems to have become a crown of thorns. The country’s agriculture sector, long failing to feed its population, is in a deepening crisis.
Marcos began with a promise to condone farmers’ mortgage defaults, grant land to retired war veterans and landless agriculture graduates, and distribute fertilizer and high yield foodgrain seeds to promote farming. It seemed to have helped his approval rating, which climbed from the 58.77 percent he scored at the polls to 75 percent in the first six months in office. But now, his approval record is on the wane, mainly due to a lack of definitive action to solve the surging food crisis. He is under pressure to find someone competent to manage the agriculture department.
Everything Marcos has done so far – like giving the poor the rice confiscated from smugglers, extending the one-year moratorium on land amortization and interest payments granted in September 2022 by a further two years, approving a new range (PHP16-23) for farmgate prices for newly harvested rice, and ordering a ceiling for retail prices – are, said a critic, “band-aid treatments.” His election campaign promise to bring the retail price of rice to PHP20 (US34¢) a kilo remains a distant dream. The price in Manila currently ranges from PHP36 to more than PHP80, depending on quality. But Marcos still said recently that he is “hopeful” of bringing the price down.
Marcos is yet to recognize the crux of the issue, which is that the Philippines’ harvest area has shrunk by 33 percent, from 13.25 million hectares in 1986, the year his father fell from power, to 12.52 million ha. by the time the succeeding Corazon Aquino left office in 1992, and 8.92 million ha. by 2020. So “we are now importing not only rice but even casava, in increasing volume each year,” said the critic. The cost of such imports in 2021 was US$15.7 billion.
Marcos, the critic surmised, has “no clue about why farming has shrunk. He is in the kind of situation of being unable to see the forest for the trees.”
Another observer, Rigoberto Tiglao, a Cabinet colleague of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and now a current affairs commentator, wrote in the Manila Times that he thinks Marcos’s management style is a major problem as he hardly consults with advisers on decisions, nor does he have a group that he asks to debate the pros and cons of a controversy. Cabinet meetings, Tiglao added, are practically a ritual, “a formality in which reports are presented to a bored audience with no discussion of important issues.”
Bongbong’s father, the only president to win reelection when a two-term presidency was law, knew that rice is a sensitive political commodity, said Francisco Tatad, the information minister and spokesman for most part of Marcos père’s rule. Marcos Sr. “believed that the minute rice disappeared from the poor man's table, political support for the government also disappeared. So he never allowed the supply of rice to dip beyond normal levels,” wrote Tatad in his Manila Times column.
Soon after declaring martial law, recalls another political observer, the elder Marcos replaced the mutually overlapping bureaucracy of Rice and Corn Board and the Rice and Corn Administration with a new body called the National Grain Authority (NGA) with a mandate to increase the production of rice, corn, sorghum, mongo, peanut, and feed grains. It supported the Masagana ’99 program aimed at rice self-sufficiency. In 1981, Marcos Sr. reconstituted the authority as the National Food Authority with wider commodity coverage to include items like fruits, vegetable, fish, and manufactured food items and established what were called Kadiwa (an acronym from the Filipino phrase KAbataang may DIwang WAgas, or “youth with pure spirit or purpose”) stores selling basic food items at low prices. When he was overthrown, his successor Corazon Aquino, whom some have called the “avenging widow” abandoned anything that bore Marcos’ imprint. The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) that she launched with the objective of empowering landless farm workers by redistributing private and public agricultural lands flopped. The expectation was this initiative would create independent farmers, provide employment to more people and enhance agricultural output. But those who received small plots of land didn’t have the wherewithal to till it. So they sold it to anyone who wanted to buy for whatever purpose and the country became dependent on imports for not only rice, but also much other farm produce. The cost of such imports in 2021 was US$15.7 billion.
According to the national manager of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) Raul Montemayor, former president Rodrigo Duterte’s 2018 decision to free the National Food Authority from its function of regulating imports and give the private sector a “free and unlimited rein over rice importation” as a solution to the 2018 rice price crisis is also to blame. Imports in 2019 increased to 3.17 million tonnes and climbed to 3.85 million in 2022. The high volume of imports competing against local produce disheartened farmers and food self-sufficiency fell from 90 percent to 79 percent by 2021, said Montemayor in a letter to the Manila Times. The proposal from some quarters to lower the tariff on rice imports from 35 percent to 10 percent, he wrote, will further discourage farmers. Besides, there is no guarantee that traders will pass on the tariff saving to consumers. The country’s growing reliance on imports, Montemayor wrote, “are the proximate causes of the current crisis.”
He recommends setting up a system that would give farmers the option to store their harvests in idle NFA warehouses, borrow money against their stocks, and then sell directly to consumers with the government, jointly with the private sector, providing logistical support.
A similar initiative was tested and proven in India several decades ago. In its early years as an independent nation, India faced severe food shortages. Starvation was widespread, and India had to depend heavily on food aid, like the US’s PL480 program, and imports. In the 1960-61fiscal year, it produced only 79.7 million tonnes of foodgrains to feed a population then of 456 million. Now, for the past three decades plus, India has been a rice exporter. It achieved this success with the help of a revolutionary rice strain (IR8), widely knowns as the miracle rice, developed in the Philippines by the International Rice Research Institute. Today, as the world’s most populous nation and democracy, India not only feeds its population but its non-Basmati white rice exports command around 40 percent of the global market. In 2022-23 fiscal, India produced 130.84 million tonnes of rice – some three-and-a-half times greater than its production at the start of the Green Revolution. Similarly, India has also become the world’s largest milk producer, beating America.
Maybe Marcos could find some guidance in India’s achievements.