SHOULD the country aim for the attainment of food security or food self-sufficiency? This question was tackled by prominent economist Dr. Cielito Habito, former National Economic and Development Authority director general and socioeconomic planning secretary, during the Department of Agriculture’s Food Security Summit last May 18 to 19. The question is of utmost importance because the popular belief among our legislators and the media is that we should aim for food self-sufficiency.
In layman’s terms, food self-sufficiency means producing all the food requirements of the people within the country’s borders regardless of the costs of attaining this goal. Since the Philippines geographically lies in a tropical zone, it can produce most of the crops and animals that are meant to feed our people. The cost to society of attaining food self-sufficiency is an issue conveniently left out by its proponents, however, knowing that it is unrealistic to do so given our rapid population growth, growing land scarcity, and that our economy operates in the context of a globalized trading regime.
Food security, on the other hand, as noted by Habito, quoting the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) definition, “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” As such, it is not enough to have the supply (production) or be self-sufficient; food security also requires that food be accessible (affordable), particularly to the poor, be safe and nutritious, and availability be stable all year round.
The concept of food security has become the acceptable norm at the global level in measuring progress made by a country in meeting the food requirements of its people. Unfortunately, our legislators still subscribe to the obsolete notion of food self-sufficiency.
Poverty and food security rating
A clear manifestation of our legislators being biased towards the goal of food self-sufficiency is their knee-jerk reaction of calling a congressional hearing whenever there is a proposal to increase imports of a certain product that is competing with local produce. The usual argument is that we can produce these locally and hence, there is no need to import. We need to protect our producers at all costs. Never mind the exorbitant costs to consumers and other users of that product because in the medium and long run, our people will be better off.
The problem with this proposition is that it is highly flawed. Despite many decades of aiming to become self-sufficient and protecting our producers – the so-called small farmers and fishers – they remain as dirt poor as ever.
Dr. Rolando Dy, former dean of the University of Asia and the Pacific, noted that among the five big countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – we have the highest rural poverty incidence at around 30 percent compared to the rest, which are below 15 percent.
In terms of food security, both Habito and Dy noted that we were ranked 73rd among the more than 140 countries included in the survey. Among Asean countries, we only outranked Laos and Cambodia by a few points, having the lowest food security rating in the region while Singapore leads the pack. Interestingly, Singapore has very limited land to produce agricultural products and mostly imports its food requirements. Yet, among the Asean countries, it is still on the top of the food security rating.
The exorbitant price that we pay for being food insecure is the high prevalence of wasting and stunting among our children. The Philippines is among those with the highest wasting and stunting prevalence, according to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report. Out of 130 countries, the Philippines was ranked 93rd at 7.9-percent wasting prevalence. In terms of stunting, the Philippines had a 30.3-percent prevalence and was 88th out of 132 countries. Unsurprisingly, one out of three Filipino children are stunted.
Undeniably, this is the most scandalous result of the protectionist policy we have embraced for more than 40 years!
In addition, Dr. Ramon Clarete, former dean of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, bewailed the drastic decline in the contribution of agricultural exports to total Philippine exports. He calculated that agricultural exports’ share was at a whopping 64 percent in 1960. The figure had dramatically dropped to just 8 percent in 2019 (a pre-Covid year). Similarly, the share of agricultural exports in 1960 was 33 percent of gross value added; it was down to a measly 1.6 percent in 2019.
Protectionism did not lead to our agricultural prosperity. As Habito concluded in his paper: “The history of Philippine agriculture is replete with evidence that undue protection from competition has not done the country any good; the result, in fact, is that it brought the country deeper into food insecurity. The country’s historical lessons, along with experience elsewhere, tell us that the path to food security is not a path of protection by insulation, but one of nurturing and strengthening through appropriate and effective production support, within a level field of market competition.”
It’s broken, fix it!
“If it ain’t broken, why fix it?,” so says the adage, but the current status of our agricultural and food system obviously shows that the situation needs fixing. Our legislators’ penchant for calling a hearing due to the entry of more imports or because tariff reductions for certain commodities will adversely affect the profits of certain influential producers or groups of producers will not solve our problem. It will only exacerbate the inability of our agricultural sector to ensure the country’s food security.
The problem cannot be solved by adopting a parochial sectoral perspective of the challenges confronting our agricultural sector. One has to take a more holistic view of what is happening in the sector to be able to find solutions to the problems that have bedeviled agriculture for so many decades.
My next essay will deal with this issue by tackling the concept of food systems that have been adopted by the United Nations in addressing the issue of food security for various nations of the world.
This story was originally published on The Manila Times, and was republished with permission from the author.