A popular ditty goes that “Planting rice is never fun. Bent from morn ’til the set of sun.” Rice farmers nowadays would likely append to that folk ballad the lyrics, “planting rice ain’t rewarding as well.” After all, their average income is not quite enough to elevate them above the poverty threshold.
The plight of the farmers is rather ironic because rice is arguably our most precious commodity. It is consumed all day long, from breakfast to dinner, and anytime in between. Why then does cultivating this crop not bring about prosperity or comfort to the farmers?
There is of course a simple explanation for this phenomenon.
In determining how much profit farmers could make from planting rice, selling price is one of the most important factors to consider. The higher the selling price, the better off they would be.
Unfortunately for the farmers, their well-being goes against the consuming public’s welfare. And in the clash of competing interests, the consuming public will always have the edge because politicians translate this into more votes.
The farmers’ lamentable condition is further aggravated by the fact that some commentators are pinning the blame on the farmers themselves. They claim local farmers are inefficient since they cannot produce enough rice during harvest, unlike their counterparts in the region. Moreover, they assert the farmers have been protected from competition for so long that they cannot match the lower price of rice from other countries. How accurate are the critics’ assumptions?
Let us take first the issue of inefficiency that leads to low productivity. The accompanying table is a selected comparison of rice yield per hectare of rice producing countries in Asia.
The table clearly shows that our farmers are not doing that badly. We are second to Vietnam in terms of average ton yield per hectare. Thailand is a major exporter of rice only because their land area is double our own with a lower population base.
What about land fragmentation as the cause of our supposed inefficiency? I’m afraid this contention is not backed up by hard data. Our average rice farm is 1.3 hectares. Vietnam’s is 0.5, Thailand’s is 1.6, and Indonesia’s is 0.3. The average in Asia is a meager one hectare.
Some might argue that even if our farmers were competitive in producing rice per hectare, our total harvest would still not be enough to cover the rice requirements of our population. Hence, the need to cover the deficiency with imports.
There is no rebuttal to the above argument. It is elementary that if you don’t have enough supply of a certain good, then you have no choice but to acquire it from somewhere else. But in doing so, we are again forgetting the bigger issue of reforming our agriculture sector, in general, and delivering the assistance needed by the farmers to be able to produce more rice, in particular.
I have heard foreign and local economists alike parroting the mantra that if we cannot produce a certain product, like rice, at the most competitive price, we would be better off buying it from other countries that can. They even cited Singapore as a perfect example. They said the Lion City’s food security index is at the top 10 ranking and yet it does not produce most of its food requirements.
What those experts failed to mention is that Singapore’s population is just a fraction of our own. Securing their rice requirements is not as daunting a task as ours.
In one conference I attended in the 1990s, former National Food Authority administrator Jesus T. Tanchanco, Sr. warned the proponents of rice import dependency that during the early years of Martial Law, we experienced a debilitating rice shortage. He recounted that he was given a “blank check” by then President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. to procure from other countries all the rice supply we need at whatever price. Unfortunately, no country was willing to sell.
What saved the day for us was the willingness of the then ruling generals in Thailand to sell us some of our rice requirements. The balance was somehow covered by a bumper corn harvest, which was mixed with the rice being retailed to increase the volume.
Let’s now go to the critical issue of uncompetitive pricing. We need not belabor the point that our locally produced rice is indeed priced higher than that in other countries in the region. The more appropriate question to ask though is, “Why is this the case?” Why can’t our farmers produce rice at a lower cost? I can think of four major reasons behind this.
1. The high cost of inputs. Can the government do something to bring this down? If not, then we better think of price subsidies to have cheaper-priced rice.
2. The high number of calamities (typhoon, drought, etc.) that visit our country each year. The risk borne by our farmers is thus correspondingly higher, too.
3. The lack or absence of affordable credit to the farmers. There is a government bank mandated to cater to this need. Unfortunately, it has reneged on its obligation.
4. Inadequate post-harvest facilities, like field-drying machines, threshing, shed-drying, etc.
In all the above problems and concerns, the solutions are not within the farmers’ grasp and control. All they can do is pray that those who are able to help will do their job.
In life, one of the best lessons we’ve learned is that in analyzing the sentiment or situation of a person, we must put ourselves in that person’s shoes. I think it’s time to put on the farmers’ shoes. Let us feel for ourselves the burden, hardships, and frustrations they are enduring to put rice on our tables.
Finally, let us bear in mind that to succeed in providing the consuming public with enough rice at the lowest price possible, we must extend to the farmer the wherewithal to accomplish this goal for us.
Edgardo C. Amistad is a member of the Management Association of the Philippines. He is an adviser to the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation.