by Julius D. Mariveles

THE WORLD is already eating way beyond its means, yet those who produce the food barely have enough to eat.

This dual layer of ironies was highlighted during the Responsible Business Forum on Food and Agriculture in Manila this week, as experts from around the world emphasized how growing consumer food demands are far and fast outpacing the ability of the world’s natural resources to provide this need.

The challenge, says World Wildlife Fund-Philippines president Lory Tan, is to find ways to produce more food while using up even less resources such as land and water.

Tan cited the country as an example in showing the pressure that people are placing on the natural resources of the world that would be compounded by problems brought about by climate change and water scarcity. In the face of the need for food, participants discussed the need to improve agricultural productivity while improving rural livelihood and reducing its impact on the environment.

“We are eating ourselves up; (the Philippines) sits 117 percent beyond our natural capital,” Tan said as he opened the two-day forum that gathered representatives from various agricultural sectors and business leaders throughout Asia.

Resources persons underscored the need to rethink food production. Jason Clay, senior vice-president, Markets and Food of the World Wildlife Foundation-USA cited as an example the growing of cattle for beef, which takes up 60 percent of land yet only provides for 1.3 percent of the total needed calories.

Tan and Clay said the answer to this problem is not to use more resources such as land for food production, but rather to find more efficient ways to produce the food that more people really need. In addition, both cited the need for people to be more efficient in their consumption of food, as a significant percentage of the food produced is really just wasted because of the nature of a consumer-driven society.

At the same time, experts noted how this growing food consumption is not reflected in the plight of those who have a direct hand in food production – the farmers.

Sec. Francis Pangilinan, presidential assistant on food and agricultural modernization, pointed out that Philippine farmers remain among the poorest of the poor.

Coconut farmers, for example, earn only an average of P23,000 a year, or not even P2,000 a month.

This, even as food prices have risen by 7.4 percent, or well above the inflation rate of 4.4 percent, Pangilinan said.

Key Statistics On Agriculture

Even as the Gross Domestic Product of the Philippines rose last year, the second fastest-growing in Asia next to China, 20 out of 100 Filipinos remain hungry while four million households or at least 20 million Filipinos cannot feel the growth and do not have enough food, he added.

“We should treat our farmers like our parents,” Pangilinan quoted his own young daughter as saying. Pangilinan said people should place more importance on farmers, perhaps even more than lawyers and engineers, since people rely on the output of farmers three times a day, compared to the few times that people need lawyers in their lifetime.

Among the agricultural commodities addressed during the open and working group discussions were rice, poultry, fisheries and aquaculture, palm oil, coffee and cocoa, and sugar.

Juan Farinati, vice-president for Asia of Monsanto Corporation, said that there should also be a focus on “innovation and partnerships” that would lead to producing more food with less resources.

He cited the case of Vietnam where farmers have shifted to corn from other crops and were able to export it only a year using Monsanto bio-engineered seeds that increased the income of farmers to more than US$400 per hectare.

Aside from the shift to other crops, Matthew Morell, deputy director general for research of the International Rice Research Institute, said there is also a need to improve production systems like moving to mechanized farming to boost yield.

He added genetics would play a “strong role” in improving rice strains that would have higher yields.

Guy Hogge, head of sustainability of Louis Dreyfus Commodities, on the other hand, said farmers in rural areas might not have access to markets as he raised the need for government intervention in agriculture.

Sugar, on the other hand, once the biggest export commodity of the Philippines, was described by Sugar Regulatory Administration Gina Martin-Bautista as a “game changer” because it can be used to branch out to other industries like bio-water and bio-plastics because it is a “green commodity” or environment-friendly.

Bautista, however, pointed out that Thailand, which learned sugar production from the Philippines, has outstripped the country in terms of production.

Second only to Brazil in terms of sugar production, Thailand now has more than one million hectares planted to the crop compared to the Philippines’ 420,000 hectares.

Yet while Thailand only has double the hectarage devoted to sugar compared to the Philippines, it is producing more than four times the sugar output, or 11 million metric tons for Thailand compared to the Philippines’ 2.5 million metric tons.

Amid the problems posed by climate change and limited resources, Pangilinan said, using the words of his then nine-year-old child, that “we must treat farmers like our parents” because “we need them on a daily basis” for us to eat.

He also said that if the country’s framework for sustainable agriculture must put farmers, fisherfolk, and agricultural first, integrated environmental care and preservation and must show “new way of doing things” while going back to basics.


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