We have a rice crisis, but here’s how we can help stop it

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The Philippines is having a rice crisis. The solution implored by the government is to import rice, but is this the best way to solve the problem? Photo by JAMES BEN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Earlier this year, the National Food Authority announced that there is a shortage of rice in the country. The NFA administrator, Jason Aquino, said that majority of the Filipinos who rely on government-subsidized rice would then have to buy commercial rice, the price of which has already increased due to the lack of supply.

A few days after this statement, President Duterte gave a “verbal instruction” to import 250,000 metric tons of rice as a move to address the shortage. However, during the Congressional hearing in August, it was made clear how the NFA’s request for import was only approved by the NFA Council (comprised of 11 government agencies such as the Department of Trade and Industry) in May.

In that same hearing, Trade Undersecretary Ruth Castelo said that the delayed approval was because the NFA did not submit its inventory of rice supply on time. She also added that NFA’s statement on the lack of cheap rice must have influenced the spike of rice prices.

“The inflation rise was triggered by the declaration by NFA that there was no more rice supply. Yes, it was out in the media, it was speculation. But coming officially from the NFA administrator was the main trigger for the inflation,” she said.

Castelo also said that businessmen may have also increased their rice prices to take advantage of the alleged rice shortage.

Meanwhile, President Duterte denied the rice shortage, and in an interview with CNN Philippines, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol confirmed that there is no shortage, but that there is an increase in the price of rice because of the delayed imports.

“There is no rice shortage. But there was indeed a spike in the prices of rice in the market, and this was caused by the delayed importation of NFA rice and even the commercial rice imported by the private sector,” Piñol explained.

"When the NFA rice disappeared in the market, when the importation of the private sector was delayed, speculators came in and it caused a spike," he added.

While government leaders and agencies are arguing on the state of the rice in the country, it is clear that there is a rice crisis. Not only is the country experiencing a nine-year high inflation, causing the prices of goods to rise, the Word Bank also said that Philippine agriculture output has also been in decline for the past years for various reasons, such as decreasing interest of Filipinos in agriculture farming and climate change.

Now, the solution implored by the government is to import rice, but that could affect the local produce as importing rice is cheaper and consumers would most likely opt to purchase the less expensive option. In a panel discussion during World Food Day hosted by CollaboX, an enterprise that puts together boxes filled with goods from social enterprises, various champions of Philippine agriculture and sustainability got together to talk about how Filipinos can help solve the agriculture crisis in the Philippines.

Here are some of their suggested solutions.

cropital.jpg The biggest problem of Philippine agriculture is climate change. When disasters strike, farmers are the ones who incur the loss the most. Photo from CROPITAL/FACEBOOK

Invest in Filipino farmers

Ruel Amparo, the founder of Cropital, a crowdfunding platform that makes it easy for anyone to help finance Philippine farmers, says that by investing in farmers, we would be able to help them improve their production.

“[Farmers] are usually very credit dependent. They need credit for their production, for them to have the inputs, the seeds, the fertilizer,” he says. “They end up getting their credits from private lenders and these private lenders charge them as high as 20 percent per month which is too high.”

By investing in farmers, Amparo says that we would not only be able to assist their day-to-day processes, we can also contribute to making the Philippine agriculture sector as a viable market for investors.

Investing in Filipino farmers also means buying local. It’s been advocated for many times over, but sustainable lifestyle store EchoStore founder Chit Juan says that this simple practice is still not as widespread as it should be.

“What each of us have to do is to be conscious about where our food comes from,” Juan says. “Buying local already supports a local farmer and farming is not an easy thing to get into, so you must really give it to the farmers who continue, carry on, and grow our food … It really matters when we eat less imported food.”

Juan also adds that the challenge of Philippine agriculture is the fact that the country is archipelagic. “So what's the solution? Don't buy na from across the water, you just eat within the confines of your island,” she suggests.

downtoearth2.jpg One of the most obvious solutions to the rice crisis is to invest more in farmers. This way, we would not only be able to help improve their production processes, we can also contribute to making the Philippine agriculture sector as a viable market for investors. Photo from DOWN TO EARTH/FACEBOOK

Diversify crops and the Filipino eating habit

For Paula Aberasturi, the woman behind biodynamic store and cafe Down To Earth, she says that a difficulty in Philippine farming is weather and how our country easily feels the effects of climate change principally because of our geographic location.

A farmer herself, she has experienced unpredictable weathers that ultimately affected production on her farm. “You [can] plan for the whole year [but] you don’t know what to do anymore once there’s too much rain or there’s drought ... so that’s one big problem because we're vulnerable rin,” she says.

Amparo has also seen that every time there's a storm or natural disaster happening, the ones that are incurring the loss the most are the farmers. “They are producing the food and yet due to crop failure, they’re the ones bearing the risk,” he says.

“What usually happens is that they can’t pay back their loans given the interests and a lot of them give up on being a farmer … you really need to have deep pockets for you to be able to get through series of typhoons and no farmer with very minimal earnings could actually endure that.”

Given the reality of climate change, Aberasturi suggests that farmers should diversify their crops so when disasters strike, they can also have another source of food or income. “If you have biodiversity in your farm and then you have a disaster, you still have resilient crops and you don’t have to be so dependent on just monocropping,” she says.

Aberasturi also says that producing rice is more expensive than, say, sweet potato, but because of the Filipino eating culture, rice is still the crop of choice of farmers.

Juan adds that the solution is also in the hands of Filipinos. “The power is in our hands because the consumer is always a co-producer. If you stop buying it, the farmers will stop planting it but if you keep buying it, they think that's what the market wants.”

downtoearth.jpg Given the reality of climate change, Paula Aberasturi, founder of Down To Earth, suggests that farmers should diversify their crops so when disasters strike, they can also have another source of food or income. “If you have biodiversity in your farm and then you have a disaster, you still have resilient crops and you don’t have to be so dependent on just monocropping,” she says. Photo from DOWN TO EARTH/FACEBOOK

Export more agri products

While Juan and Aberasturi are adamant in buying local, Carlo Almendral of the World Food Program Innovation Council says that we should also consider where we are globally.

“There [are] people [across the world] who can't sell rice and if we think about ourselves in the global context, we [can] start exporting and trading rice,” says Almendral.

“We can start exporting different things but we have to think about it in terms of how we fit in to the rest of the world because a lot of the [climate change] problems in the Philippines will be the rest of the world's problems soon.”

Almendral also says that there are compounding global problems that need to be taken into consideration. “We're also seeing a trend in world hunger. There are people getting hungry right now because of political conflicts so we add all those things together, thinking about it domestically doesn’t make as much sense as thinking about it in the context of the rest of the world.”

He suggests to help farmers trade with ASEAN countries and see where that can go. “As a farmer, it's cool to make money from local customers because it's more efficient,” he says. “But [it’s] even cooler if you can sell it to the rest of the world and make more money and bring in more money to the Philippines in return.”