Farming While Hungry
Import-friendly policies, climate change, and a lack of land reform have impoverished Filipino farmers and fishers
That article focused on the Philippines, an archipelago in Southeast Asia known as much for its friendly citizens and beautiful beaches as for its vulnerability to all kinds of weather-related disasters.
Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, droughts, tsunamis, landslides, you name it, Philippines has suffered from it. But it also had to contend with two bloody bouts of colonial rule (over 300 years under Spain and nearly half a decade under the Americans), violent insurgencies, and a brutal, 14-year reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
When Marcos was finally toppled following a popular uprising in 1986, I was still a young child in Burma/Myanmar, unaware of the parallels in our nations’ histories. But I remember growing up hearing lu-gyis (adults in Burmese) talking in hush tones, comparing our late dictator Ne Win with Marcos - although the former clung to power for an additional 12 years - and how to bring about similar changes.
Of course, our understanding was limited, given the restrictions of media under Ne Win’s rule, but we saw and admired from afar Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, the two presidents that came after Marcos’ fall from power.
In May 2022, some of that history came back full circle, when Marcos’ son and his namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, won the Philippines’ presidential elections. So when we were looking at which countries to cover for Emerging Hunger Hotspots series, I proposed Philippines as one.
I wanted to find out how the new president, who also took on the role of secretary of agriculture, seen as a nod to the country’s agrarian roots, is faring.
I also used to visit the Philippines quite often between 2009 and 2015, mostly to cover the aftermaths of devastating storms, and was keen to report about it again. I worked with Michael Beltran, a talented and tenacious local reporter. Unfortunately, what we found was…. very worrying.
Crucial but Unprotected
Nearly 1 in 3 farmer and fisherfolk live below the official poverty line, making them the two poorest groups in the Philippines, according to official statistics released in March. The national average is around 1 to 5.
These numbers were for 2021, when the poverty threshold was 11,957 Pesos per month (nearly $243 at that time but about $210 now). Conditions have worsened both globally and locally since, with the combined impacts of climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and COVID-19 pushing up prices of food and forcing down the values of many currencies, including the Philippine Peso.
What does this mean in practice?
It means farmers like Felipe Nazar, 52, toil away on his two-hectare farm for little to no return. Pretty much every morning, he heads to the rice fields before the break of dawn so he can get in a day’s work before the blazing sun hits his back. He has not had a single day off work since last year, and yet, he’s in debt and no longer able to afford school fees for his two youngest children.
Small-scale agricultural producers (farmers and fishers) are “The Biggest Losers” from the crisis of food, feed, fertiliser, finance and fuel, said the FAO, the UN food and agri agency, which calls the current situation, “The 5F Crisis.”
These groups “carry the burden of costs from the price hikes as they are unable to fully transfer the costs to the next value chain player. They also have more limited coping and adaptive capacities because of their precarious socio-economic standing,” the agency said in an assessment.
“The resilience of the agri-food systems in the Philippines lies in protecting and supporting small-scale farmers and fisherfolk.”
The last point is crucial, because when food producers suffer, ordinary people like 40-year-old Julie Gutierrez suffer too.
“Our breakfast and lunch have become one. Our merienda (afternoon snacks) are gone. Rice, eggs, everything is expensive,” she told Michael.
Experts say the slow pace of poverty reduction in the Philippines can be traced to agricultural productivity not growing as fast compared to neighbouring countries.
“In the early 1990s, absolute poverty in the Philippines was much less prevalent than in China, Indonesia, or Viet Nam. However, the country made virtually no progress in reducing poverty in subsequent years, particularly in the first decade of the new millennium,” said a report outlining a roadmap for the country’s rice sector. I have a copy of it, but it doesn’t seem to exist online so I’m afraid I can’t share here.
Meanwhile, farmers in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam “benefitted enormously from the modernisation of both local and global supply chains and trade opportunities arising from the rapid expansion of Asian agri-food markets, enabling rapid poverty reduction in these countries, particularly in rural areas.”
Powered By Rice
Activists, farmers and experts also told The New Humanitarian that government policies that encourage food imports and longstanding inequality, particularly over land ownership, have kept food producers in persistent poverty. Global headwinds beyond their control have worsened their plight.
But beyond hunger and poverty, there’s also the issue of malnutrition, because it’s not just a matter of how much you eat but also what you grow and eat.
In the Philippines, rice is king. It accounts for 18% of gross value of agricultural production and nearly 25% of household food expenditures, according to the roadmap I cited above.
“Trends in rice demand in the Philippines have also differed from most other Asian countries. Per capita rice consumption is on a downward trend in other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
“Per capita rice consumption i the Philippines remains strong across income groups in both urban and rural areas. Even high-income groups in both rural and urban areas consume more rice with a rise in income,” it added.
What all those words mean is that the average Filipino diet is heavy in starch and light on nutrients. As someone whose nickname is PBR - short for Powered By Rice - and born into a nation of rice lovers, I totally get where they are coming from.
But I also know, from personal as well as professional experience that this is not good for either the development of children or the long-term health of adults. Already, more than 1 in 4 children in the Philippines are stunted, nearly 1 in 3 women of reproductive age are anaemic, and 74% of people could not afford a healthy diet, the latest UN figures showed.
Not only that, Philippines cannot produce enough rice to meet the demand, so the government spends billions of pesos importing it. Imported rice is often cheaper, which means local farmers have to reduce their prices to be competitive and suffer economic losses.
Some experts we spoke to suggest adjusting the government’s budget which currently skews towards supporting rice production to boost the availability and affordability of fruits and vegetables.
There is also another reason besides health and cost for Philippines to consider both its diets and food production systems: climate change.
The country already sees an average of 20 typhoons a year, about five of which are destructive, so the threat of stronger and more frequent storms should be a real concern. El Niño, which started in June and could last until next year, is also bringing higher temperatures and is expected to affect rice production.
The story - please read in full here - came out soon after the one-year anniversary of Marcos Jr.’s reign. During his campaign, he promised to bring cheaper rice to Filipinos, but that has yet to happen, Michael, who met many farmers in the course of writing this article, told me.
Farmers, who are squeezed by higher production costs and cheaper imports, “felt betrayed” and the officials don’t seem to be listening, said Michael, who spoke to them at a protest rally. “During a dialogue with agriculture officials, many of (the farmers’) pleas were unheard, and merely noted.”
Instead, the new president seems more intent on reviving programmes initiated by his late father, like the Kadiwa stores which offer subsidised food items.
Michael, who later wrote a separate story focusing on the Kadiwa stores for Nikkei Asia, said “They're as much of a farce today as they were in their first iteration in the 1980s.”
“Supposedly intended as a cheaper alternative to markets, the prices weren’t much different and some vegetables, like the green papayas I saw, were even higher priced compared to a nearby market.”
“The government only subsidises the transportation of farmer’s goods to cities and puts up a stall but not much else. The farmers who man their stalls are required to pay rent and there aren’t many accessible Kadiwa stores either.”
He is hoping the government will pay more attention to a key demand of farmers - land reform. Land ownership in the Philippines is extremely concentrated in the hands of a few elites - a legacy of colonial systems that encouraged large agricultural holdings - and has been a source of conflicts since the country’s independence in 1946.
“(Farmers) have a pretty comprehensive recommendation, down to the process of compensation and confiscation. But in a country ruled by landed hacienderos and elites, the chances of it being considered in bureaucratic halls are slim,” said Michael.
“But farmers continue to demand, and they do have many supporters. I hope this gets more attention in the future.”
Three Good Reads
What the Rapid Rise of Norway’s Farmed Salmon Industry Means For the Rest of the World - Civil Eats
Meg Wilcox interviews investigative journalists Simen Sætre and Kjetil Østli about their book, The New Fish: The Truth about Farmed Salmon and the Consequences We Can No Longer Ignore.
The Lies in Your Grocery Store - The New Yorker
This fascinating piece by Sarah Larson is about Spencer Sheehan, a lawyer specialising in consumer-protection class-action suits, particularly on packaged foods, and on the authenticity of their ingredients and flavors.
“The Meat of the Future” Risks Capture by Today’s Monopolists - Food & Power
Annie Sholar warned that “if we’re not careful, we could end up with a meat industry even more monopolized than it is today”.