Is rice self-sufficiency attainable without smuggling?

GrassrootsI was both pleased and surprised when the newly minted Agriculture Secretary and my former colleague in the House of Representatives Procy Alcala announced in mid-2010 that the country would be self-sufficient in rice by 2012.

My elation with Sec. Alcala’s announcement was likely shared by our rice farmers and Filipinos as a whole. We want government to support our producers with infrastructure and other resources that they need, instead of patronizing the rice exporters of Vietnam, Thailand, and India. Moreover, Filipinos oppose a repeat of the long lines of consumers waiting for hours to buy cheaper rice at National Food Authority outlets in 1995 and the huge losses incurred by the NFA when it imported rice at exorbitant rates from 2008 to 2010.

On the other hand, I was concerned that the year being targeted for self-sufficiency was too soon. Substantial funds and some time would be needed to rehabilitate many of our deteriorating irrigation systems, and especially to build new ones.

Most farmers still cannot borrow from the formal lending sector to purchase fertilizer and other farm inputs, which have become costlier over the years. (Plus, the DA has removed price subsidies for certified/hybrid seeds and fertilizer for rice farmers.) And the many gaps in our farm extension system, following the transfer of agricultural technicians from the Department of Agriculture to the local government units, remain unfilled.

Recently, Sec. Alcala’s projection of 2012 as the year of rice self-sufficiency was moved to 2013, after he announced that the NFA still needed to bring in 187,000 metric tons of rice to shore up its buffer stocks for the lean months of July to September this year.

What is bothersome amid all this assurance of self-sufficiency is the glaring omission of rice smuggling as a major concern. Based on United States Department of Agriculture figures, the “undocumented” (translation: “smuggled”) rice importations in the Philippines averaged about 1 million metric tons in 2011-2012. Were the Bureau of Customs to successfully clamp down on smuggling, our aspiration of self-sufficiency by 2013 would remain a pipe dream.

Still and all, the country’s performance in rice production since 2000 has been moderately positive. We registered an average growth of more than 3% annually (compared to 0-2% in other countries). This also exceeds our population growth rate of about 1.9%.

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