Where have all the rice gone?

I grew up in the vast plain of South Cotabato in the Philippines. The only obstruction there is to one’s view of the horizon is Mt. Matutum, an active volcano that nourished the soil of the province, making it the second biggest pineapple plantation in the world trailing behind that one in Hawai’i. However, despite the big revenues the local government gets from the planting of pineapples as well as the canning of these succulent fruit , not to mention the vast number of labor force Dole Philippines employs to keep its operation going, the people of South Cotabato have not abandoned the still important–and now gaining more media attention in the Philippines and in the rest of the world that considers it as their staple food–rice.

The pineapple plantation of Dole Philippines on the foor of Mount Matutum (Polomolok, South Cotabato, Philippines)

My father, who grew up in Iloilo, a province in one of the islands in central Philippines, used to tell his stories about their life as a family of farmers and how he, as a young boy, had to wake up at four in the morning to bring the carabao (water buffalo) to the nearby stream and ready the beast for an early morning plowing of their one and a half hectare land. Every time we eat our meal and he sees that we wasted too much rice, he will proceed in telling us the difficulty of growing rice and the things a farmer has to go through just so we can have our bowl of rice.

Before I left for college more than five years ago, a kilo of rice cost around 20 pesos (0.50 USD in current exchange rate); however, just before I left for Vietnam two weeks ago, I was shocked when a rice variety my mother used to buy now costs 40 pesos or roughly double the 2003 price. It even shocked me more when I saw a long queue of housewives and children alike obstructing the flow of traffic just to buy subsidized rice costing around 26 pesos. Where have all the rice gone?

It is rather ironic because the International Rice Research Institute, the world’s largest research group that develops new rice variety that will have to feed the burgeoning need of humanity’s need for rice is found in the Philippines. What is even more ironic is that the Philippines is the world’s biggest rice importer. Amid this crisis, one can only ask what happened to the results of the studies conducted to improve rice production?

Granting that this is a world-wide problem as the rest of the world say Myanmar, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam are also experiencing the same fate why are these countries able to come up with mechanisms that will better enable them to face the crisis more prepared and therefore less severely hit?

I am a believer that the world has sufficient supply of food to feed its six billion plus inhabitants. With all the current technologies that make this possible, this feat is not impossible. When we look deeper into the movement of rice from preparing the field, applying fertilizer, planting, harvesting, distribution, down to the retailers and then to the homes, one will conclude that there must something wrong in one or more of the processes involved. I do not want to simplify things here. The problem is just so complex to place the blame on any of the entities. But when we try to isolate them, we shall see that the part that concerns distribution brings about most of the problem. Here politics is more than just about building farm-to-market road or giving subsidy to the farmers; here it is the game itself, especially in countries such as the Philippines that remain to wallow in cloaked feudalism/landlordism where serfs are not anymore serving the nobility but are enslaved by the more pwerful, more vicious landlord–the state.

In South Cotabato, as in the rest of the country, the promises of the Compehensive Agrarian Reform Program remain suspended in air sucking out the breath out of each farmer’s lungs. I have known of a farmer in Landan, Maligo, Lam-caliaf who continue to toil their lands without any hope of eventually owning the land of their birth.

The problem of rice shortages in the Philippines is just a by-product of a century long unwinnable struggle of farmers such as my father’s family to own the land they plow and for the government to help them secure these lands.

More than the money generated by the local government from taxes and revenues derived from pineapples, the more pressing concern is the what, the where, and the how of rice production. If it continues to ignore this problem of the people queueing for a kilo or rice these same group of people might think of another option to get food, an option that no one of us will like.

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