Tough times for rice-eating Philippines as supply dwindles

March 31st, 2008 - 11:36 am ICT by admin  

By John Grafilo
Manila, March 31 (DPA) Monty San Diego was shocked when Philippine government authorities urged restaurants and eateries in the country to cut to half-cup the regular serving of rice in their meals to help stave off a looming supply shortage. The 23-year-old construction helper opened his packed lunch, which contained a small slice of dried fish, one whole tomato and a large heap of rice.

“Rice is the only thing that fills our stomach since we cannot afford slabs of meats or large slices of fish and other viands and they want us to cut our consumption of it too,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “What are we going to eat now?”

The father of two laughed off suggestions that fortified instant noodles being promoted by the government be substituted for rice, which is eaten during breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Philippines.

“It’s not the same,” he said. “Besides, I get stomach ache after eating three packs of these noodles.”

“These people are crazy,” said Maning Rosario, a rice farmer in the northern province of Nueva Ecija, when asked about the appeals of government officials for Filipinos to cut back on rice consumption.

Rosario said poor Filipinos have gotten used to eating rice without viands because of high prices of meats and fish, so asking them to cut back on their rice intake would be just too much.

Suggestions for Filipinos to turn to brown rice instead because it’s more nutritious and more filling are also raising eyebrows, since the less-popular variety is more expensive.

A kilo of brown rice costs 50 pesos ($1.25), which can already buy about two kilos of the white variety sold by the government.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap triggered the alarm about the country’s precarious rice supply when he asked restaurants to reduce the amount of rice served to customers March 18.

He cited studies by the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics that at least 25,000 sacks of rice equivalent to 30 million pesos were being wasted everyday in the Philippines.

Yap admitted that prices are high because of a tight supply in the world market. He said with the onset of the harvest season in April and May, increases in rice prices were expected to slow down.

But peasant leader Jaime Tadeo said the country’s rice problem was just starting.

Tadeo, a former government rice technician during the rule of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, said the April and May harvest will only yield supply enough for two months.

“We are harvesting a total of 6.6 million metric tonnes for one whole year, while our consumption is almost 1 million metric tonnes a month,” he said. “With the tight supply of rice in the world market, we are in serious trouble.”

He blamed the government’s policy of importing rice to ensure food security instead of boosting local production as the main culprit behind the predicament the country faces.

“Instead of improving local production, the government focused on importation since they found it cheaper to buy outside rather than subsidise our farmers,” he said. “Now, that the price of imported rice spiked up and the supply is scarce, we have nowhere to go to, to satisfy our needs.”

Feny Cosico, an agriculturist and an advocate of self-sufficiency, lamented that the government has totally neglected local rice farmers.

“Domestic production is unable to satisfy our rice needs because of the generally backward conditions of production,” she said. “Less than one percent of our rice farmers use tractors and power tillers.”

Cosico pointed out that rice imports rose to 2.4 million metric tonnes during the past three years from 800,000 metric tonnes in 1996. She said the Philippines is now the world’s number one rice importer.

Although the rice yields per hectare in the Philippines are nearly double than those neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, the area planted with rice has been declining due to urbanisation and industrialisation.

In the Philippines, a total of 2.3 million hectares of land are currently planted with rice, compared to 9.9 million hectares in Thailand and 7.5 million hectares in Vietnam, according to Department of Agriculture statistics.

As the government scrambles to source the country’s rice needs, the Department of Agriculture has vowed to step up its conservation programme, which also includes efforts to stop hoarding by unscrupulous traders.

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