Is the Philippines Food Secure?

  • Written by  Renz Louie V. Celeridad
  • Published in Features
Is the Philippines Food Secure? © OVCRE/Lawrence N. Garcia

“Anytime that one would need food, food is there.” That is how Interdisciplinary Studies Center on Food Security (ISCFS) chair Dr. Domingo Angeles exemplified food security. He said that food should be accessible, healthy, and nutritious—being able to meet the daily demands of one’s body. Dr. Angeles added that food security also means that food can be used in the long run.

Now, an ordinary citizen might ask, “Is the Philippines ‘food secure?’”

Dr. Angeles said that the country is not.

He said that the Philippines is not even self-sufficient in rice, coffee, livestock, and poultry, which are some of the staple products on Filipino tables.

Dr. Angeles added that the possible reason for this insufficiency is that 30% of Filipinos are so impoverished that they are not able to buy the proper amount of nutritious food.

Ten percent of those destitute Filipinos are even poorer because they eat only once a day, or in Filipino terms, “isang kahig, isang tuka.”

The birth of an interdisciplinary center

Food security is not just about food, Dr. Angeles said. It is also connected to other issues that concern people like diseases, environmental degradation, unpopularity of agriculture among the youth, diminishing area of agricultural lands, and climate change. He also added that extension services, preharvest practices, and postharvest losses are also factors of food security.

This prompted the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) to launch the Interdisciplinary Studies Center on Food Security (ISCFS) in 2014. The ISCFS enjoins people from different disciplines to work together in order to make food available, accessible, affordable, and nutritious.

Among the institutions tapped for collaboration are UPLB-based colleges such as the College of Agriculture (CA) for food production, College of Forestry and Natural Resources on forest issues that also affect agriculture, and the College of Human Ecology regarding nutrition security and safety.

The UPLB National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (UPLB-BIOTECH) is also included along with potential partners from non-government organizations and groups from the private sectors.

The ISCFS, according to Dr. Angeles, has already conducted five round-table discussions (RTDs) since its launch. The first two RTDs focused on issues on food security, its concepts, as well as issues on fruits, vegetables, livestock, and fisheries.

Furthermore, the Center organized the National Conference on Food and Nutrition Security last 12-13 October 2015. Representatives from the academe, government, and private sector attended the conference and talked about three main topics: food availability, market distribution, and governance and policies.

According to the Social Weather Station, the percentage of Filipinos who see themselves as hungry rose from just above 8% to over 18% in a span of 15 years (1999-2014).

This perception of hunger can be seen as an implication of the unstable state of food security in the Philippines. Food security, according to the conference, may be aggravated by a number of factors like diseases, climate change, and environmental degradation.

Issues that affect food security

Environmental degradation is either caused by nature through climate change or by man’s overuse and misuse of land. Dr. Angeles said that almost half of the land in the country is already degraded, with 17% of those damaged lands considered as “severely degraded.” Reviving these lands is hard and almost impossible according to Dr. Angeles because “it takes a million years to form soil.”

Different diseases destroy crops, which result to decrease in crop production in the country. Dr. Cecilia B. Pascual, a scientist from the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), mentioned different diseases that commonly destroy the crops here in the Philippines.

Downy mildew, for example, is a disease in seedlings that causes 60-100% yield loss in susceptible plants according to Dr. Pascual. Meanwhile, Fusarium ear rot produces microtoxins that are detrimental both to the health of plants and humans. Anthracnose, a fruit disease, causes mango and papaya, among others to rot. Leaf curls and bacterial wilt destroy common fruits and vegetables like tomato, eggplant, pepper, and bitter gourd or ampalaya.

Dr. Pascual said that farmers need to properly water the plants to reduce the stress that they experience. Increasing the potassium fertilizer for plants and decreasing the use of nitrogen especially during wet season are also some of the measures used to keep plants from catching these diseases.

Postharvest is also an issue in food security. Dr. Angeles said that the Philippines, being a tropical country, is expected to have high annual postharvest losses because the weather hastens the evaporation process; thus, it speeds up water loss in plants. Lack of infrastructures like farm-to-market roads and packaging houses also contribute to postharvest losses in the country. In addition, lack of proper packaging materials contribute to further harvest losses especially when crops are transported to faraway markets.

To deal with this situation, the Department of Agriculture (DA) established the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech). PhilMech has been developing different technologies that will help in the postharvest processing of crops.

For instance, rice farmers can be aided by tractor-mounted rice transplanters, tractor-mounted combine harvesters, and biomass-fed furnaces, to name a few.

Meanwhile, boom sprayers, corn planters, corn pickers, corn shellers, and multi-fuel biomass furnaces are used to help in corn production. In addition, the PhilMech Soybean Postharvest and Mechanization Systems support the production operations of soybean while the Far Infrared and Convection Heating System is used in producing dried mangoes.

Furthermore, the Postharvest Horticulture Training and Research Center (PHTRC) in UPLB is leading a program that will improve postharvest systems for different crops in the country, such as fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, and medicinal crops.

For example, Solid Shipping Lines Corporation has followed PHTRC’s suggestion of making modified fruit vans. These vans are built to withstand the stress of different means of transportation, helping in the proper storage of fruit crops. PHTRC had also developed an optimized hot water treatment protocol to prolong the shelf life of mango.

According to Dr. Matilde V. Maunahan, University Researcher II, PHTRC recommends capacity-building among farmers and other stakeholders so that they will be educated on proper postharvest practices for quality assurance and food safety. She added that postharvest technologies must be used by food producers so that they can achieve the highest possible quality for their produce.

Maunahan emphasized that postharvest practices cannot improve the quality of harvested crops; these can only maintain it. This implies that preharvest practices must be suitable enough so that crops will be of the highest quality come harvest season.

Climate change, now considered a global problem, also affects food security in the Philippines. Dr. Angeles explained that a one degree increase in temperature corresponds to a 10% decrease in yield of rice and other crops. A case in point is when the DA reported that almost 350,000 tons of crops have been damaged by drought in the early part of 2016.

Meanwhile, the political landscape, particularly in the local government level, influences the implementation of extension services and policies that are focused on food security. Dr. Angeles rued that despite the formation of such policies and services, nothing will be achieved unless the local government wants to implement them.

Moreover, policies and services to address food security and agriculture in general are useless if these will not be supported by their supposed target stakeholder groups.

Most of the youth today, for example, do not see agriculture as a potential career in the future partly because of the lower income that it gives compared to other fields. However, Dr. Angeles believes that there is money in agriculture. He is of the opinion that the government must issue policies that will increase the income of those working in the agricultural arena. Agricultural entrepreneurship must also be promoted to encourage the youth to turn their ideas not only into a profit-oriented business but also into a socially-responsible endeavour.

Aside from the aforementioned issues, Dr. Angeles said that credit, pre-harvest practices, and extension services also affect food security. “Maikli ang pisi ng ating mga magsasaka,” he said as he explained that low production is due to the low number of inputs, resulting from lack of financial resources.

He added: “The quality really depends on the preharvest process.” Dr. Angeles also claimed that extension services, along with national programs, are hard to implement unless they are prioritized by the local government.

‘Invest in high value crops’

Given all the aforementioned issues, Dr. Angeles, who also happens to be the former dean of UPLB CA, suggested ways to address food security in the country. He first talked about investing in high-value crops.

Agricultural lands will be more productive if they will be planted with high-value crops like vegetables, banana, mango, pineapple, and coffee. For comparison, pineapple yield, which is worth PhP 200,000 per hectare, is more than six times the worth of corn that is only around PhP 30,000 per hectare. Dr. Angeles believes that investing in high value crops will increase the income of the people.

High income means more people can buy food, decreasing the number of malnourished individuals in the country.

Malaysia, a neighbour of the Philippines in the Southeast Asian region, proves this belief.

He attributed Malaysia’s development to its high-value crops like rubber, ornamentals, papaya, and cacao. After developing its high-value crop sector, Malaysia is now aiming for sufficiency in rice, a manifestation of food security.

However, Dr. Angeles said that the Philippines must still plant staple crops like rice and corn because Filipinos always seek them. These crops contribute to the country’s Gross Domestic Product as well.

Fruit crops as substitutes to staples

Dr. Pablito M. Magdalita, a scientist from the Institute of Plant Breeding, said that “fruit crops are excellent source of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins needed by the body.” For example, saba banana, which can be cooked into turon and maruya, is nutritious enough to substitute rice, he said.

He added that other fruits like pineapple, sinigwelas, rambutan, duhat, bignay, and other banana varieties like lakatan and latundan, can be processed into food products. In particular, duhat and bignay are being made into wine; pineapple into dried chips; and sinigwelas into jelly.

According to Dr. Magdalita, different diseases also hamper fruit production in the country. The bunchy top virus, sigatoka leaf spot, and bract mosaic are prevalent in bananas while the ringspot virus and bacterial crown rot are common in papayas.

The citrus tristeza virus, meanwhile, damages citrus fruits like suha, calamansi, and lemon. Rambutan and santol, among others are also not safe from fruit fly attacks. Dr. Magdalita emphasized the “increasing occurrence” of diseases like fruit rot and bacterial crown rots due to climate change.

Different measures are now being practiced to address these issues. For instance, virus-resistant varieties are being planted to avoid the ringspot virus in papaya; fungicides are being sprayed against the sigatoka leaf spot in banana; hot water treatment is being done to lessen fruit fly damage in mangoes.

Even ordinary citizens can protect their fruits from the abovementioned diseases. Dr. Magdalita said that affected individual fruit trees like papaya and banana should be cut down, buried, or burnt to avoid infecting the whole area planted.

What’s next for ISCFS?

Dr. Angeles said that the Center had already sent proposals to the UPLB Graduate School (GS) to start a graduate program—the Master of Science in Food Security.

They will not only offer this program in UPLB but also in other universities to further promote food security in the country. They also have an ad hoc committee that will develop food safety initiatives. The committee had already eight approved proposals, which will be funded by the DA-Biotech Program and the Department of Science and Technology.

The Center is coordinating with the Committee on Agriculture and Food and the Committee on Climate Change at the House of Representatives to create policies that will address issues on food security today. Furthermore, they held a workshop about La Niña thar helped the people prepare for strong rainfalls in the coming months.

Food security in the country is a complex issue that requires collaboration among people from different fields.

For example, agriculturists are needed to monitor crop production; economists are important to see how products move around the market; plant pathologists can help against destructive crop diseases; and even communication practitioners should be in the equation to bridge the information gap between the end-users and the experts.

This implies that a collective effort is a must to make food available, accessible, and nutritious enough to meet the daily needs of the people.

Now is the time to make the Philippines “FOOD SECURE.” ■