The smattering of provocative headlines, appearing in recent issues of various Philippine daily newspapers, mirrors a basic issue on the minds of many Filipinos: Why does the Philippines import rice, and why can’t the country produce enough of its staple food to feed its people?
“Indeed, in a country where half-full rice bins are a cause for great concern in a given household, having a sufficient rice supply for all Filipinos’ consumption is our government’s priority,” says Leocadio Sebastian, executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).
To meet this moving target, the Philippines has needed to buy rice from other countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and even the United States for most of the past 130 years. “Rice is such an integral part of history and culture in the Philippines that, for some Filipinos, this fact is a source of national shame,” says David Dawe, Bangkok-based economist for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Many reasons are typically put forth to explain the failure to achieve rice self-sufficiency—faulty government policy, corruption, conversion of rice land to other uses, backward rice farmers, deteriorating irrigation systems, and lack of farm credit, among others.
“But all countries,” says Dr. Dawe, “including several rice exporters, complain about these problems. Although some of these problems are important, they do not explain why the Philippines imports rice.”
But then what does explain it? In a word, it is geography. Says Dr. Dawe: “The Philippines imports rice because it is a nation of islands without any major river deltas like those in Thailand and Vietnam. The major traditional exporters—Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar—are all on the Southeast Asian mainland, while the countries that have been consistently importing rice for more than 100 years—Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, and Malaysia—are all islands or narrow peninsulas.” (See Rice on imports come with the territory page 37 of Rice Today Vol. 3, No. 2.)
Although the presence or absence of river deltas is the overriding factor in explaining why some Asian countries import rice and others export it, other reasons are also at work. In the Philippines, geography is again the culprit. Located off the eastern edge of the Asian continent, the Philippines bears the brunt of numerous typhoons, making rice production more difficult, risky, and often unpredictable. Thailand and the Mekong and Red River deltas are much less affected by such recurring disasters. In addition, the Philippines’ rice sector has high labor costs that must be reduced—without reducing wages—in order to increase productivity.
So, what would happen if rice trade were liberalized? Would it mean that the Philippines might end up importing even more rice? To look at the consequences of such a policy decision in the Philippines—and other countries for that matter— PhilRice and the International Rice Research
Institute (IRRI), with the support of the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) of the Department of Agriculture of the Philippines, conducted a 3-year study of the issues involved. BAR’s support enabled the research team of Dr. Dawe, who was then still stationed in the Philippines as an IRRI economist, Piedad Moya, senior associate scientist in IRRI’s Social Sciences Division, and Cheryll Casiwan, economist with the Socioeconomics Division of PhilRice, to bring together agricultural experts from many other Philippine organizations, such as the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, the National Food Authority, and state colleges and universities.
Trade liberalization, although a term used widely today, is often not properly understood. “It does not necessarily mean more imports for all commodities in all situations,” explains Ms. Moya. “What it does mean is that the price for a specific commodity inside the country (the domestic price) becomes the same as the price for that same commodity outside the country (the world price), after taking account of the exchange rate and any necessary transportation costs.”
Generally speaking, for any commodity that is tradable across international borders, the domestic price will naturally tend to equal the world price unless the government intervenes with trade restrictions. If domestic prices are higher than world prices, private traders will try to profit by importing from abroad, buying low, and selling high. This process will continue until the additional supply of imports lowers domestic prices and erases those profits. The reverse will happen if world prices are higher than domestic prices: private traders will profit by exporting.
For rice in the Philippines, only the government has the legal authority to arrange imports. “Because the government is currently limiting the quantity of imports each year,” says Ms. Moya, “the law of supply and demand suggests that domestic prices will rise, and, in fact, they have.”
It is not widely known, even in the Philippines, that Filipino farmers receive much higher prices for their palay (rice at harvest before the husk is removed) than do farmers in neighboring developing countries. Further, farm prices for rice have increased during the past 10 years much faster than for other key agricultural commodities such as corn. Not surprisingly then, the very high prices received by Filipino farmers translate into very high rice prices paid by poor consumers. The large gap between world prices and domestic rice prices not only harms consumers, it also creates opportunities for corruption that would disappear if the price differential were much smaller.
During the past few years, the Philippines has imported about 10% of its consumption requirements. According to May 2006 press reports, the projected rice import total for 2006 will amount to around 1.4 million metric tons. Because palay and rice prices are higher in the Philippines than on world markets (sometimes nearly double world prices), the researchers’ analyses show that rice trade liberalization would most likely mean more rice imports than this.
“Lower palay and rice prices due to increased imports would, of course, hurt palay farmers,” says Dr. Dawe, “especially those with large surpluses to sell. Many palay farmers are poor, but many are not, and most of the benefits of high prices accrue to the larger, better-off farmers because they have the most surplus to sell. However, there is no doubt that some small, poor palay farmers would be hurt by trade liberalization.”
On the other hand, the research suggests that lower prices resulting from increased imports would benefit the many poor consumers who spend more than 20% of their income on rice alone. “These consumers consist of fi shers, landless laborers, corn farmers, and the urban poor—in fact, most poor people in the Philippines are not rice farmers,” Dr. Dawe points out.
In a trade liberalization scenario that results in more rice imports, Filipino farmers would need to either become more competitive in rice production or explore alternative crops. “One promising way to improve competitiveness is through the use of hybrid rice, a new technology that could increase yields and profits in areas and seasons that are suitable for its cultivation,” says Ms. Casiwan. “PhilRice is conducting considerable hybrid rice research that will, we hope, provide farmers with this additional option.”
Progressive rice farmers can and are exploring growing other crops. “The choice of alternative crops will vary from province to province and some of these alternatives are even more profitable than rice and would make farmers wealthier,” says Ms. Casiwan. “But these crops are also often riskier to plant than rice, and the government and private sector will need to work together to reduce the effects of this risk on farmers.” (See Opportunities beyond growing on pages 22–23, for a farmer’s rice perspective on the role of crop diversification in the Philippines.)
Rice farmers who switch crops will not lose their household rice security. “They can still choose to plant some rice if liberalization occurs,” says Ms. Casiwan. “Only a small portion of their land—about 0.15 hectare of double-cropped land for a family of five—is necessary to feed their own family.”
As the study found, trade liberalization will have both positive and negative effects. So, PhilRice’s Dr. Sebastian and IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler urge that any relaxation of government import restrictions that does occur in an effort, for example, to benefit poor consumers should be done gradually, not all at once. In the foreword to the book that details the results of this research, Why does the Philippines, they import rice? write that “Gradual changes make it easier for all members of society to adjust their lives to changed circumstances. Any analyst with a dose of humility must admit to being less than perfect, and a gradual approach to reform would allow an assessment of changes before full reform is implemented.”
“In thinking about the future of rice policy in the Philippines or any country for that matter, it is important to keep a balanced perspective,” says Dr. Dawe. “Rice is what many farmers grow, but it is also what nearly all consumers eat. In many cases, farmers have more flexibility to switch crops than consumers—especially poor ones—do to switch their staple food.”
Although self-sufficiency can be a laudable goal, it can cause great harm if it is pursued at all costs, without regard for the welfare of the poor. Self-sufficiency pursued through improvements in productivity and competitiveness is much less likely to have negative side-effects, and is a target worth pursuing.
Indeed, in one recent story in the Philippine press, National Food Authority Administrator Gregorio Tan Jr. is quoted as saying, “If we can be self-sufficient in a competitive manner, then well and good.”
It is important that policymakers reach decisions with as much information as possible. The PhilRice-IRRI research team has endeavored to provide that information so that decisions can be made to help the millions of Filipinos living in poverty—rice producers and consumers alike.
Mr. Hettel is the editor-in-chief of Rice Today