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Rice self-sufficiency in '99?

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     Life for rice farmers can make a turn for the better. It will, however, largely depend on which road the Estrada Administration will take. 
     "We're not putting great expectations for (President-elect Joseph) Estrada to make radical changes (simply because he has) not much track record (in agriculture) to speak of," said Tom Villarin of nongovernment organization (NGO) Kaisahan. 
Harvesting rice
     However, Mr. Villarin senses an upbeat mood among farmers who see "a pro-poor stance" in the incoming President. And that image, projected quite exhaustively during the last presidential campaign, is expected to go a long way for him to make an impact on national food security. 
     Political image aside, what are Mr. Estrada's potentials in delivering the goods? 
"Mr. Estrada is lucky," said Roger Concepcion, director of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management. 
     Largely due to the Ramos administration's thrust on improving irrigation, the country is close to achieving self-sufficiency in rice, Mr. Concepcion told BusinessWorld. Next year, imports of the staple may not even reach half a million metric tons (MT) - assuming his projection that total irrigated rice lands will produce at least nine million MT. 
     There are about 1.43 million hectares of rice lands with functioning irrigation facilities, planted to new hybrid rice varieties, protected by the integrated pest management program, nurtured by balanced fertilization and taken care of by synchronous planting. 
     All these were implemented under outgoing Agriculture Secretary Salvador H. Escudero III's term and, if Mr. Estrada opts to continue this mix, rice self-sufficiency will be attainable, Mr. Concepcion said. 
     Thus, virtually half the job for the incoming government has been done or has been initiated at the very least. It is, therefore, likely the Estrada administration will succeed in pushing the rice productivity goal to the finish line, as can be gleaned from the sentiments of NGO leaders. 
     The initial positive reception was triggered by Mr. Estrada’s declaration to make food security and agricultural development his administration’s centerpiece program. 
     “He’s the only President to have stressed that in a period of globalization,” said Omi Royandoyan, executive director of the vigilant NGO Philippine Peasant Institute. 
     One first sign the next administration can provide the continuity as regards the rice self-sufficiency program was its choice of William Dar to become the next Agriculture Secretary. “Coming from a research organization (Philippine Council for Agriculture Resources Research and Development), Dar will surely concentrate on production,” Mr. Conception said. That will be a logical next step following efforts to increase the number of irrigated rice lands under Mr. Escudero’s tenure, he added. 
     The fact that the outgoing administration laid the groundwork for rice self-sufficiency is a relief to its successor whose main priority on food security will be to ensure Filipinos will be spared from the adverse effects of a volatile world market. 
     Early in the decade, total volume of rice traded worldwide was approximately 5% of total production. 
     “The importance of rice production and consumption as a barometer of growth and food security in the region originates from the historical preference of the region’s populations to rice as a staple food,” said Francisco Lara, Jr., executive director of MODE, Inc., and NGO. 
     A study by agriculture policy analyst Leonardo Gonzales shows only a few countries in Asia, the world’s main rice producer, registered production growth rates that are higher than annual population growth rates. The rest, including the Philippines, showed a production downtrend in the 1985-1993 period. 
     To protect local consumers from fluctuating world market prices, the government needs to be self-sufficient in rice. 
     Simulations by economists Cristina David and Arsenio Balisacan in 1993 indicated rice imports reaching 1.047 million MT in the year 2000. This projection assumed, among others, an annual population growth of 1.9% for rural and 2.9% for urban areas, and low productivity. 
     On the other hand, they projected that with increased productivity, imports will only be 403,000 MT in the same year. 

Rice imports no longer needed by 2000 – if policies are right

     Barring any major weather disturbances such as El Niño, the Philippines is likely to experience low net imports – or none at all – by the year 2000 if the Estrada administration takes off from where its predecessor is leaving, so says Roger Concepcion, director of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management.
     This means focusing on irrigated areas to achieve the targeted yield of five metric tons (MT) of rice per hectare using a mix of production strategies.
     “It can be done for so long as there is discipline,” Mr. Concepcion said in an interview. “Provide access to seeds, make irrigation work, etc.” In fact, there are farms in Agusan del Sur, Davao del Sur and Zamboanga that have attained yields beyond seven MT per hectare.
     The formula is known here, and has been tried out but not on a massive scale, said Mr. Concepcion. Mr. Estrada does not have to go to China (he announced earlier he intends to study China’s agriculture program) to begin with, he added.
     However, there remains the pressing issue of lack of farm-to-market roads which was not adequately addressed by the Ramos government. This is complicated by a rice trading system that compromises farmers’ options.
     “It could not seem sensible for (a farmer who lives five kilometers from the nearest road) to grow surplus rice when he will have to bring it by foot and be at the mercy of traders who know that (a farmer) has no choice but sell at their (the traders’) price,” economist Ramon Clarete said in an earlier interview.
     He agreed the technology is available. “But for as long as the marketing system is inefficient because of high marketing costs, then there’s little incentive for farmers to complement appropriate management on their part.”
     Mr. Clarete said the Ramos administration should be credited for having trimmed down investment backlogs in irrigation, “although we have, according to NIA (National Irrigation Administration), something like a potential for another million hectares of low-land arable areas (to be irrigated).”
     However, Mr. Concepcion is gung ho that with what has been done so far, the rice farming sector is on its way to achieving self-sufficiency. He cautioned, however, that the incoming administration has to brace itself for possible difficulties in the latter part of the year.
     “There is a serious potential threat to food security given the converging impact of  (weather anomalies) El Niño and La Niña. Standing crop is seriously threatened by any single typhoon in August or September (once a La Niña episode eventually occurs),” he said.
     La Niña, an offshoot of El Niño, is characterized by excessive rainfall and has, in fact, substantially damaged agriculture economies in South America and certain Western countries.
But the new administration still has a way around this threat, said Mr. Concepcion, “(Mr.) Estrada should immediately work on the release of a special fund of P3 billion allocated for La Niña-mitigating measures.”
     Part of this can be used to intensify extension of production inputs in areas deemed not extremely vulnerable to floods and excessive rains, and to ensure these areas can offset projected losses in threatened rice lands, he added. Although adverse weather conditions have increasingly become a pestering concern of rice production, it appears the agriculture sector is not wanting of measures to survive.
     And for the new administration to make good its pledge of licking perennial rice shortages, it may only be a matter of outperforming its predecessor and providing the resources to make sure that what it planned will actually be done.

Romulo T. Luib 

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