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[box type=”default” size=”large”] PHL should not depend on foreign countries for its rice supply [/box]

SANTIAGO CITY, Isabela – Herculano “Joji” Co, longtime president of the Philippine Confederation of Grains Associations (Philcongrains), says the Philippines should not depend on foreign countries to supply its rice needs as global output is expected to shrink in the next 15 years.

Co made the pitch as a new government under president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is set to be inaugurated on June 30, 2016 and must buckle down to work immediately to confront reduced rice yield due to El Nino and the threat of low grain supply from Vietnam and Thailand, both of which are grappling with reduced water flow to the Mekong River from the Himalayas that will surely cut output in the Mekong Delta, which produces half of Vietnam’s rice.

The Philcongrains president stressed that about 590,000 hectares of rice farms in Vietnam are threatened by saltwater intrusion, further rendering the land unfit for rice cultivation.

Co argued that with four big hydroelectric dams being built upstream of Mekong River in Laos, and with China using more water from the river for its own power-generation and irrigation needs, the prospect for the traditional exporters to produce more rice is rather bleak.

“We note as well the findings and recommendations of the Responsible Business Forum (RBF) on Food and Agriculture held from April 25 to 26 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Jakarta that asked Japan, China and South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to enact policy, programs and provide funds to smoothen rice price volatility and manage the impacts of natural resource degradation and climate change,” he added.

Co quoted the RBF final report as saying: “Asean, with over 600 million people, is a top global food supplier and consumer. The region holds significant potential to dramatically increase its food production quantities to meet heightened demand, but this must be done sustainably to protect the ever more fragile environment. In doing so, farmer livelihood has to improve as only half of all farmers in the world today make enough money to feed their own families. Moreover, improving farmer livelihood is necessary to attract a new generation of producers. To tackle these challenges, smallholder farmers, especially women, need more access to finance, technology, expertise, and other resources that can elevate them out of the low input low output paradigm.”

The RBF, which was organized by Tony Gourlay of Global Initiatives, Co argued, “apparently did not take into account a five-year study from 2015 to 2010 being conducted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) to look precisely into the impact of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on trade and investment in food and agriculture, as well as the various free trade agreements cut with China, India, Australia and New Zealand since 2002.”

This Searca study, launched last year, could provide the inputs needed to calculate the social costs of economic integration, the impact on food security and the effects on current free trade agreements.
Searca Director Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit said for Phase 1, the study will cover the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, with the succeeding phases tackling the countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The project will be spearheaded by Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in partnership with the other members of the Southeast Asian University Consortium for Graduate Education in Agriculture and Natural Resources (University Consortium.)

Co noted that aside from recommending changes in ASEAN to spur food production, RBF also suggested four other approaches: Public research and development (R&D) is needed to achieve high-yielding,climate-smart rice varieties at a lower- cost and create innovative sustainable agricultural practices; scale is attained through widespread knowledge extension systems enabled by public-private partnerships; safety nets, such as crop insurance and other social protection measures,are needed to enable subsistence rice farmers to compete and thrive, and; ASEAN+3 (meaning China, South Korea and Japan) must continue to reduce restrictions on trade, consider a futures market, and share much more rice production and market data.

RBF speakers stressed that half of the 100 million small farmers out of a total population of 600 million in ASEAN nations are women, who work 66.6 percent of the time but barely eke out a living by earning only 10 percent of the total income.

Moreover, Co noted that even Jason Clay, senior vice president of World Wide Fund for Nature-US (WWF-US) had sounded the alarm in Jakarta that warned that “in the next 40 years, we will need to produce as much food as we did in the last 8,000 years.”

Co explained that a comparison made by the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) on rice output and prices in Asian nations under a team headed by Dr. Flordeliza H. Bordey in 2013 also showed that Filipino farmers pay irrigation fees when such services are free in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries.