The Gardener at the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition for All

I was hungry and you fed me.” Matthew, 25.
Food First: we all need food to live, and healthy food to be healthy. The Problem of Hunger in the Philippines; the solution.

Lecture of Charles Avila at the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition for All Ateneo de Manila University and Zero Hunger Task Force of the Philippine Government; October 18, 2020.

Part I – The Food Loss in the Food Value Chain
Part II – Agricultural Development as Solution
Part III – Peculiar Historical Background of our Present Problem
Part IV – Hope for Food Security; Install a Food Security System
Part V – The Modernization of Agriculture and Our Present Options

Part I     Food Loss in the Food Value Chain: The Philippine Agriculture Scenario

  • So that you will understand quickly: know that in the Philippines, agriculture contributes less than ten percent – perhaps 8 to 9% of the country’s GDP – despite more than 50 percent of the population to be found in farming, one way or another.
  • Note also that Philippine agricultural products are generally high volume, low value and quite perishable. They are more often wasted during the process of food distribution in the supply chain.
  • But what was generally bad became much worse in these Covid Times in terms of difficulties to bring produce from farmer to consumer. Thus, a record high 30.7 per cent of Filipinos, or 7.6 million families, one in three, went hungry in the last quarter because there just was not enough food available. And whatever was available, if any, still had to be bought. And “Wala na akong pera (I have no more money!)”, said the President.
  • Actually, his Social Welfare Secretary was “safe-keeping” Ten Billion pesos that had been allocated precisely to be distributed to four million hungry families without delay. But he did not or could not or would not do so, maybe thinking other agencies, governmental or civil, were already doing the same, and even announcing that he wanted to return the unused fund to the Budget Department.
  • Traditional huge losses – up to 50% recorded from the initial harvesting up to distribution stage are certainly due to the lack of post-harvest infrastructure and facilities, the way of handling and the kind of distribution system prevailing.
  • It’s like: we’ve produced a good one, then lose half of it, we couldn’t keep it, and now we scrounge around to import, if we could, the wasted fifty percent we badly need and which we had earlier produced. And this has been going on for who knows how long.
  • Who, then, would want to stay on endlessly working the same crazy pattern? Certainly not the next generation who’d prefer working anywhere else abroad rather than merely producing sure hunger and poverty at home despite nature’s generous gifts to our country.

Part II Agricultural Development as solution

  • At the outset, then, we point to Agricultural Development as the solution. This entails not only accelerating productivity but, even more so, increasing linkages between farm production, agricultural services, and agro-processing.
  • This is a context that involves a continuum from farming to small and medium scale enterprises in the supply chain – an area beckoning to socially minded smart investors, like, perhaps many of you now present here.
  • Additionally, it includes agricultural diversification and welcomes changing patterns in consumption especially with a view to issues of health and nutrition.

Part III Historically, roots of food insecurity peculiar to the Philippines

  • After the introduction of agrarian reform programs in our country, farms increased in number and decreased in size. In other words, the agricultural growing function was drastically disaggregated.
  • The immediate effect was a shift from relatively skilled, efficient farm enterprises able to reach economies of scale to unskilled small producers with little technical knowledge, much lesser financial means for on-farm upgrading and an inability to aggregate the volumes necessary to capitalize on low margins.
  •  In historical fact, the program of land parceling and distribution, which was central to land reform, became counterproductive. How? Land Conversion from food and agriculture to other kinds of land utilization caused overall productivity problems. Food lands became spaces for housing, schools, parks, industries, what have you.
  • Many of the former tenants, now dubbed “ARB’s” or Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries, had now in fact become a new class of poor landowners with limited ownership rights. Remember, while the impression given was that the land parcels were being distributed for free, the truth was that tenants were being forced to buy their landlords’ lands, which the latter did not want to sell.
  • And so, losing the awarded land to private creditors who fast became the new crypto landlords became a common fate, and surviving by converting land use to non-farming purposes equally became the common condition. Sustainable food production took a back seat, if it was not thrown out of the bus completely.
  • Given this historical fiasco of largely fake agrarian reform programs, given Agri-banks (UCPB, LBP) that did not become real (as Agri-banks) but quickly transmuted themselves into Universal Banks mainly servicing the rich and the already-moneyed few, leaving the majority to be serviced mainly by foreigners with their rather usurious (“5-6”) but timely loans, given the decades-long neglect in the installation of irrigation infrastructure, and given, finally, that the post-feudal isolation of the farmers could only be solved by cooperatives (encouraged by law) but the Agri-banks were non-existent to back them up –

Part IV Hope for Food Security

  • WOULD THERE STILL BE HOPE, ANY HOPE AT ALL LEFT FOR PHILIPPINE FOOD SECURITY? Yes, because of the fundamentals. Despite all of the above historical realities, the Philippines remains primarily an agricultural country, yes, despite rapid urbanization and massive labor exportation to other countries. Most citizens still live in rural areas and support themselves through agriculture, which includes 4 sub-sectors: farming, fisheries, livestock, and forestry (the latter 2 sectors are very small).
  • So, we are talking of millions of actual and potential food producers scattered all over the country’s rural areas able to grow a diversity of food produce, gifted with 12 million hectares of arable land, and “water, water everywhere” to grow rice, corn, coconut, sugarcane, bananas, pineapple, coffee, mangoes, tobacco, peanut, cassava, camote, garlic, onion, cabbage, eggplant, calamansi, rubber, cacao and a whole host of other items on a long list that won’t fit here.

Install a food-security system

  • Again, to be clear: the specific character of food insecurity in the Philippines today is not the issue of production per se, but of pre- and post-production, especially market-matching. We sure know how to produce – there’s no question about that. We’ve taught so many countries how to produce their crops properly. Our problem is not production but our failure to install a food-security system, and in particular, the most important part of that system, namely, agricultural information and marketing.
  • In this age of information and big data regimes, governments endeavor to keep their farmers well informed in real time. Our geniuses do not quite grasp this – that the Filipino farmer has to know what to plant, when to plant, how much to plant, where or on what soil, with what, what prices to expect for his produce, where to bring the product to in the immediate – in sum, to feel and act like a part of a real food system that goes beyond the agriculture sector to other sectors of the economy– with the goal of producing at lower costs for producers and therefore selling at lower prices for consumers.
  • Please note well that for decades upon decades Philippine agriculture was almost all production and hardly any marketing. Even now: in that province over there they are throwing away fruits and vegetables. They “overproduced”. They will not plant again tomorrow. What for? They just lost. They lost money because they succeeded in production, and in the firm belief that once the produce was harvested, there would be ready buyers.
  • And, of course, when their produce could not be bought in timely fashion, they had to stop producing for the next cycle; yes, why plant when they cannot sell? And so, as happens over and over again, government starts thinking again of importation – to the point of importing every food item that we can easily grow ourselves.
  • Knowing this truth, there’s got to be another way, and that way is to move from anarchy to a food security system. Let’s do it then.
  • If only people knew from the start what to plant, when to plant, how much to plant, what prices to expect for their products, what plants to plant after the main crop instead of letting the land go fallow, what permanent and short-term intercrops to plant between a couple million hectares of coconut tree-space, where to bring their harvest, who were the prospective firm buyers…
  • If only credit had been available when it was needed – timely and fast and interest-low…
  • If only irrigation of some sort had been available and warehouses were accessible and transport were cheap and fast…if only…
  • For lack of real time accurate information, agricultural products are oftentimes marketed in places where demand is low. Supply of the above products is scarce in places where the demand is high. Mr. Supply and Mr. Demand often do not know one another.  The point, precisely: it takes all kinds from both public and private sectors to install the system of food security. One can just imagine the many gaps socially oriented investors can fill.

Part V The Modernization of Philippine Agriculture

  • We can pursue this goal of food security to the max by embracing the modernization of agriculture. We have a new Secretary of Agriculture, a “modernist.” He had hardly warmed his chair when he started writing articles on satellite-based precision farming. And why not?  Some of you may have read of a group which some of us are associated with, now launching a constellation of 112 big satellites that constantly observes the entire electromagnetic spectrum of planet Earth, 24/7/365, rain or shine, through haze, clouds, foliage, day and night to surface and sub-surface.
  • It can perform a complete agronomic analysis of every square meter of the Philippines several times a week. This analysis will monitor plant and soil nutrition, hydration, pest invasion, disease manifestation and both present and future climate impacts. People will then know more precisely what to plant, when it is best to plant, when to harvest and what specifically to do to remediate any problems they find at all levels on a regular basis as the crops grow: at pre-production, production proper and post-production stages.
  • And in the physical market sphere, the Theia Satellite Network (as the group is called), will monitor all movements and developments of land, sea and air logistics. It can send a precise description and prescription every week directly to everyone in the Philippines who joins in this program. This weekly report will go directly – unbrokered – even to a simple farmer’s smartphone or to a Theia-given modem in any language of his or her choice – whether spoken, written, or in simple graphics.
  • Quite understandably, not only our DA but also our DOST, DICT, DOF and others are all enthusiastic for this kind of modernization. The fearless forecast is that, with the know-how provided by Theia analytics, farmers will realize an increase in productivity in the 25-35% range. And all this can be combined with an estimated 10-20% decrease in cost due to less labor and less inputs. We can realize higher water use efficiencies, and even with less water use we shall have better maintenance of irrigation and drainage structures and consequently have more areas irrigated.
  • In the same manner – with this modernization we can easily shift from blanket to site-specific, need-based nutrient management, which will result in less fertilizer cost, better quality water-and-soil and, consequently, higher yields, better produce quality, better prices and greater profitability.
  • No one doubts that, right now, even with fertilizer use, the practice of recommending fixed rate and timing for large areas always leads to low fertilizer use efficiency. The analytics from the satellite-based remote sensing will be quite different: “site-specific” and not a mere “general prescription.”
  • With a DENR estimate of 10 to 12 million untitled land parcels, improving land tenure security is a major development challenge. If addressed, secured land tenure would offer a wide range of benefits, including the resurrection of dead capital back to life. But DENR, quite recently, publicly announced that the challenge would be met by Year 2040, and even congratulated themselves for it.  With this new technology, however, this daunting challenge can be met in a couple of years more simply and for much less.
  • Needless to say, Increased GDP from the Agri sector generates revenue and taxes flowing directly to the national treasury. If using the remote-sensing data will increase production, say, by 30%, increasing that 10% (more or less) of the GDP (agriculture’s contribution to RP’s GDP) by 30% means a 3% increase in GDP or about $10-billion (Php 500-B) annually, at least. There can be more through crop diversification and a consequent increase in agricultural exports. We were not taking that into account as yet.
  • What can smart social-minded investors do to serve the people, to feed the hungry, and themselves become richer on the prosperity not the poverty of the people?
  • I will assume that given the immediacy and urgency of dealing with Philippine hunger, we must welcome the multiplication of “Catholic Worker,” social welfare, do-what-you-can-wherever-you-are type of Good Samaritan interventions, whose impact can and should never be underestimated.

Whom do you serve? Love your neighbor, serve the people

  • But first, on the level of thinking and consciousness, where all reality begins, the food security advocates must study and think through the systems that inexorably make either poverty or prosperity for all. In that clarity they can position themselves either as direct producers or as occupying any other necessary role in the whole value chain.
  • Own the government: it is of the people, by the people and for the people. If not, unite with others to make sure it is.
  • Empower the people through their associations and cooperatives and social-minded corporations (“that all may be one”) and help each other ask the truth of our situation – while self-reliant at all times we do not cease to ask: where can we be self-sufficient, what is our natural comparative advantage, on one hand, and on the other hand  what do we need to import  in a way that we help those differently gifted from us? If we do all these sincerely, we may yet hear the judgment for us: “I was hungry and you fed me.” You loved your country, you loved your neighbor, you served the people.  Till here for now.