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April 27, 2008

Romantic ideal of happy smallscale farmer is outdated; more agribusiness needed to feed the world

By Geronimo L. Sy

Of course everyone knows Malthus. We quote him all the time like this: food supply grows arithmetically while population increases exponentially. There will naturally come a time when we will not have enough to eat.

He was wrong.

Technology increased the food supply (and the diversity) by leaps and bounds, exponentially. Some country populations are stable save for net migration. Except in Africa, where there is always some kind of crisis, societies have not experienced famine on the scale of the potato famine in Ireland. Until now.

In the Philippines, nothing has occupied our attention more than the price of rice, what more, than a crisis of rice whether of supply or runaway prices which makes it less available to most of our countrymen. It is one of epic proportions given our big palate for rice. Was it foreseeable? Yes.

Some years back, the Department of Agriculture was predicting rice sufficiency in 2008, meaning no more imports. This is a national imperative given our agricultural background and our rice-centeredness, even politically. Never mind the rant of the world-renowned International Rice Research Institute and our Asean neighbors who learned rice production from us in the 1960s. It is 2008 and instead of rice sufficiency, we are dependent on foreign supplies. With the global supply tightening and consequent prices going up, what else but a crisis?

Aside from the Department of Agriculture, there is the Department of Agrarian Reform and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with overlapping functions governing the same piece of land which makes for confused policy directions.

Surely it is a romantic ideal to have land for each tiller, for happy farmers with a square plot to sow, plant and reap. Alas, this model is terribly outdated for the times. The game is about the farming business model that takes advantage of economies of scale, ala commercial ventures, instead of cutting up scarce fertile lands to individuals who do not have the capital or the means of production. We see the cycle of poor farmers selling or mortgaging their titles to make ends meet.

And then there is conversion. Why bother with agrarian reform law when it is easier and more profitable to build subdivisions and industrial zones? Do away with the headache of dealing with the seasons of El Niño and La Niña, the fertilizer cartel, the lack of infrastructure, the layers of traders and middlemen and just cash in.

There is more. In faraway France, fields of land are devoted to yellow-colored flower plants that yield oil not of the edible kind, but for fuel. This is happening here too.

Talking about profits, Malthus was right after all, with a twist. The new formulation: food supply and population may grow exponentially but there are no limits to increasing human greed. Trading food for oil, exchanging agriculture for entertainment, swapping fields of rice for blocks of Mediterranean houses are but symptoms.

The global challenge of sustainable lifestyles and development remains a challenge. How else to explain the rice crisis today when we know what needs to be done and yet don't do it?

Manila Times

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