MANILA, Philippines – One of the biggest and most worrisome issues facing the country today is the lack of food security.
What is food security?
According to the United Nations, food security is a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active life. and healthy.
At the recent Jaime V. Ongpin Memorial Lecture on Public Service in Business and Government, Raul Montemayor, National Director of the Federation of Free Agricultural Cooperatives Inc. (FFFCI) and Private Sector Advisor to the Department of Agriculture , said there are four key aspects of food security: availability, accessibility, quality and safety, and sustainability.
How does the Philippines fare as a country in terms of food security?
“Not very well, sad to say. According to the London-based Economist Group, we ranked 73rd in the world out of 113 countries in 2020. Among ASEAN countries, we were third from last, lower than Myanmar and only outranking Cambodia and Myanmar. Laos,” Montemayor said.
What is the reason for this?
The first, Montemayor said, is that the country’s ability to produce food for its growing population has deteriorated over the years despite the Philippines’ tropical climate and vast natural wealth.
Second, the war in Ukraine and third, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indeed, according to the UN, while progress had been made over the years to improve food security, the pandemic reversed many of these gains, which were already uneven across countries and regions.
“According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, COVID-19 has led to a sharp increase in undernourishment with between 720 and 811 million people worldwide facing hunger in 2020, or 118 million more people in 2020 than in 2019″, It said.
The fourth reason is climate change.
In this context, the country’s agricultural authorities must quickly find solutions to deal with the crisis.
For Montemayor, one way to ensure food security in the country is to help farmers rather than just focusing on increasing production.
“Unfortunately, this production-driven approach doesn’t seem to be working. Why? Because it is directed to the commodity and not to the farmer who produces the commodity,” he said.
In 2021, the country’s palay production reached an all-time high of nearly 20 million tonnes. But in the same year, rice farmers’ income fell by about 22 billion pesos, or 4,500 pesos per hectare, compared to 2017. This was due to lower farm prices mainly caused by over-import.
Many farmers likely found themselves more indebted, even though banks lent less than 1% of their total loanable funds to smallholder farmers, choosing to pay penalties instead of complying with the 10% minimum imposed by the Agri-Act. Agra.
“The Philippine Statistics Authority reported that overall poverty, and most likely also rural poverty, increased in 2021 compared to 2018. So despite the fact that we harvested more palay, our farmers ended up in a worse situation. In other words, maraming ani pero walang kita,” Montemayor said.
Improved post-harvest facilities
Beyond the increase in production, Montemayor said authorities should also look closely at the amount of food lost due to lack of drying, storage and other post-harvest facilities.
It is also important to improve the distribution and logistics system so that products from the farm reach consumers at the right place and at the right time, where and when they are needed, and are not left to rot in the fields due to lack of dryers or intermediate storage. facilities.
For food prices, Montemayor said, “The more we allow imports to displace local production, the less incentive our own farmers have to continue producing and become more efficient, and the more dependent we become on foreign suppliers for our food needs. base.
“This does not mean that we should ban imports and aspire to 100% self-sufficiency for all our food. We also need to find ways to reduce the cost of production for farmers and improve their productivity so that they can provide food at a lower cost. That said, we must be careful not to flood our markets with cheap imports just to keep food prices low. The more we allow imports to displace local production, the less incentive our own farmers have to continue producing and become more efficient, and the more dependent we become on foreign suppliers for our basic food needs,” he said.
Skyrocketing agricultural trade deficit
Montemayor, in his presentation, also lamented that when the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization in 1995, the country’s agricultural imports basically equaled exports.
“Since then, and after concluding many more free trade agreements, our agricultural trade deficit has ballooned to $9 billion a year. We have lost almost a million jobs in agriculture over the same period. We now import not only rice, corn, fish and meat, but also mongo, peanuts, black pepper, sugar and even salt,” he said.
Another issue affecting food security in the country is the aging of farmers.
“Unfortunately, our farmers are an aging and even dying breed. They don’t see much hope in agriculture. Neither do their children, whose dream is to get jobs in the cities or work abroad so they don’t have to farm like their parents. If they all leave their farms, where will they go? And where will we find the food we need? said Montemayor.
Giving importance to farmers is therefore very important, he said, citing the example of India when it renamed its agriculture department to the Ministry of Agriculture and Welfare. farmers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reported to have said that “rural and agricultural development can only be complete when the welfare of the farmer is also ensured”.
Modi could have added that the social, political, economic and ultimately national security and progress of his country could not be achieved as long as millions of small farmers remained poor and insecure, Montemayor said.
At the same conference, Rene Cerilla, legal scholar and advocacy leader of Pambansang Kilusan ng Samahan ng Magsasaka, said farmers are also struggling to cope with the onslaught of climate change.
“Facing the problem of climate change. Yung mga bagyo, ma malakas na ang tama. (Climate change is really a big problem for us. Storms and typhoons are more intense now),” he said.
Montemayor said unlike manna from heaven, food security is not free.
“We must work for this and be willing and ready to pay the price to ensure that food is always available, affordable, safe and nutritious for everyone. A big part of this bill is about taking care of our farmers so they can keep feeding us. Farmer safety is the key to food security,” he said.