Let us be quite candid about our food supply situation.
We are a country of 115.6 million, growing at about 1.4 percent per annum, which means roughly 1.5 million additional mouths to feed each year, and counting.
Unless we lower our population growth, the demand for food will increase through the years. Supplying food demand will always be difficult.
When I was at the NFA, pundits would keep asking why we import from Thailand and Vietnam whose students learned from our UP Los Banos, and then ask, how come we now import rice from them?
Ferdinand II in his campaign echoed these misplaced sentiments, because the public knew little of the realities of the rice market.
In 1978 when Ferdinand I was in power, there were roughly 43 million Filipinos and as much Thais. Now we have grown to 115, and they are at 72, because of serious population management.
After Ferdinand I, the Aquino I presidency forsook population management, in deference to the dictum of Cardinal Sin.
And while Aquino II thought differently from his mother, and got Congress to pass the Reproductive Health Law, strident objection from the conservative pro-life bloc of the numerous church froze the ball on implementation at the Supreme Court.
So rice prices in the country is, firstly, a demand problem.
On the supply side, we produce just a tad lower than the per-hectare average production of Thailand.
But Vietnam produces more than our farms produce, largely because of the huge Mekong River, the delta of which supplies not only water but topsoil from its Tibetan origins down to Ho Chi Minh.
So, whether we like it or not, deconstructing the supply-demand ratios, we are at best 90 percent self-sufficient in rice.
With bad weather, such as typhoons and floods coming at the wrong time, we need to import 15 percent of our rice requirements, maybe more these days with climate change problems.
Since 2019, after passage of the Rice Tariffication Law, the government monopoly on rice importation was lifted, with the private sector importing what ought to be our rice demand shortfall, and NFA left to just being a public warehouse for rice reserves bought from local farmers to be used largely for emergencies, which we always have plenty of.
Increasing production by our largely small farm plots is not an easy goal to achieve.
Rice requires a lot of water, which means irrigation, which government ought to provide.
It means fertilizers, which have become exorbitant.
It means better seeds, but hybrid seeds are too expensive to buy and nurture, its produce catering only to the rich, while inbred seeds need to be improved.
Balance is, therefore, difficult to achieve if we insist on food self-sufficiency. Food security thus requires, for years to come, importing the staple from neighboring countries.
Timing, however, requires that we do not flood the market with imports when our farmers are harvesting, because that would depress farm-gate prices.
So the Department of Agriculture, or government for that matter, must be guided by balance and timing.
Still, government is not helpless. It issues import permits through the Bureau of Plant Industry. It should be able to monitor both balance and timing.
Moreover, it should know exactly who imported and who could be hoarding the staple whenever prices go unreasonably high in our public markets.
Of course the Bureau of Customs can change matters when it allows importers to smuggle and/or undervalue.
That is another matter.
The same issues of balance and timing are at the heart of our sugar and onion crises of high prices.
In April 2022, I was with candidate Isko Moreno in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, a province which produces both rice and onions in huge quantities.
The mayor, my friend Romulo Festin, was complaining about onion farm gate prices, which had gone down to as low as 5 or 6 pesos per kilo, much too low to recover cost of production.
Onion farmers would rather burn their produce or allow these to rot, because prices were abnormally low.
The DA should know the problem well, as harvest time is a given.
If there would be supply shortages, then they should allow imports on time, which means long before the farmers harvest the crop, and while domestic supply cannot cope up with the demand.
The privates have access to cold storage facilities, so obviously they can control the market situation better than government can, as we have neglected to provide cold chain and better storage facilities for all our crops.
It took government quite a while to decide to import onions to augment supply, because “importation” has become a dirty word at the DA, especially after the sugar fiasco at the beginning of the Ferdinand II government.
Again, balance and timing.
Belatedly, DA has green-lighted an import for 21,000 metric tons of onions, to arrive no later than January 27, which is the end of next week.
Meanwhile, farmers have started harvesting onions. And the January 27 deadline makes little sense either.
Better to import no longer, as domestic production is just around the corner. It is a case of too little, too late.
Prescience and simple common sense would have gotten the DA to allow imports in October, to arrive in November, or even a month earlier.
But because their OIC-undersecretary was sacked and reviled due to the August sugar import directive, there has been a big chill on appropriate decision making at the department.
“Baka ma-Sebastian tayo.” So onion prices shot to the roof in November and December, and way past the new year.
That PAL crew would “smuggle” onions in their luggage shows the ridiculousness of the situation.
Have sugar prices gone down considerably? Aun no.
Eggs have also gone up by some 2 to 3 pesos per piece, depending on size. But one cannot import eggs as the solution.
Kadiwa cannot be a real solution. What sense is there for DA to buy onions at 540 pesos per kilo and then sell it for 170 pesos at their few outlets? Even our Ombudsman is bewildered.
NFA is made to sell rice at 25 pesos per kilo in the Kadiwa, when it’s actual cost is 36 pesos per kilo. How sustainable is this policy direction of giving optics prime time?
Career DA officials know the problems and the solutions.
Local executives also know the situation in their areas. It is a matter of proper coordination.
But who should be the orchestra conductor?
The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, a humongous bureaucracy which is a 24-hour day-in, day-out concern.
For 2023, largely because Ferdinand II is also the agriculture secretary, DA got ample budgetary support. That done, proper implementation is required.
Maybe the secretary should now give way to men with more time and the energy required to steer the department into achieving two simple rules: balance and timing.