High-value crops instead of rice?


Lito Banayo, administrator of the National Food Authority, is beginning to think that there is a need for higher authorities to stop aiming for self-sufficiency in rice and instead use the land to produce high-value crops.

He explained to Malaya Business Insight in a sought interview that it has been proven that, apart from obvious government indifference to agriculture, the country cannot hope to be as efficient as the Indochinese countries, principally Vietnam and Cambodia, in producing the staple cereal.

The first advantage of these two countries is their having a flat land. On the other hand, a large part of the 300,000 square kilometer land area of the Philippines is mountainous.

Even more important than that, it so happens that the biggest source of irrigation water – the Pasig River – is in the heart of Metro Manila where life or livelihood does not depend on agriculture.

The Indochinese countries have the Mekong River that cuts a wide swath in their territories. The river is the principal reason these countries never have problems with water for irrigation or for fishery.

Also important to consider, according to Banayo, is the fact that these Asean nations are practically typhoon-free.

He said the Philippines could produce more rice if some Pilipino entrepreneurs could find the wisdom of leasing hundreds of thousands of hectares in Cambodia and bringing to that country the Filipino experts who learned rice technology from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños and from the International Rice Research Institute, also operating in that Laguna town. He said labor in Cambodia is dirt cheap at $45 a month or less than P2,000.

Banayo is simply saying that given the disadvantages of the Philippines in producing enough rice (made worse by the uncontrolled population growth), there should be wisdom in giving the farmers higher income by raising high-value crops instead of planting rice.

The farmers need income, he said. They cannot get it from rice. There might be a better chance by raising high-value crops, including vegetables, demand for which is partly filled with imports, mostly from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

“We have to study carefully where we can be good at,” Banayo said. He said the Philippines cannot produce enough rice. Neither can it raise enough vegetables or even fruits. For example, he said, lanzones from Thailand is retailed here at P300 to P450 per kilo.

“We need not import lanzones. We have enough land for this fruit tree,” Banayo said.

He pointed out that it is almost a shame this country also imports durian from Thailand. Durian is grown in mountainous areas. He said Eduardo Cojuangco, on his own effort at research, has discovered high-yielding durian in his farm in Negros Occidental.

Apart from vegetables, there is a wide array of high-value crops – particularly fruit trees – that can be raised in abundance if the government will provide enough funds. High-value crops, particularly vegetables, do not need as much water as rice paddies.

According to Banayo, the government should appropriate money for cold storage facilities for high-value crops. He said the Food Terminal in Taguig is a good start. But farmers find no use for it because they do not and cannot produce enough vegetables and other high-value crops.

Cold storage facilities will prevent huge wastages. He pointed out that when vegetables start to wilt in transport during the summer season, the farmers do not make any income at all.

He said that if farmers in Trinidad Valley, known as the vegetable capital of the Cordilleras, can have access to cold storage facilities, they can harvest vegetables and time their sale according to intensity of demand.

For that to succeed, he said, the vegetables have to be picked up by refrigerated trucks so that they can reach the market fresh as a daisy.

Banayo said the initial investments could be big but, in the end, high-value crops might be the solution to food shortage.

He said higher dependence on imported rice will mean more foreign exchange. The dollar expenditures can be covered from export earnings from fruits like durian, lanzones and bananas.

According to Banayo the NFA continues to buy palay from farmers at a subsidized price of P17 per kilo. This price, he said, should give the farmers at least P5 per kilo in gross income.

But he said the NFA has a budget of only P4 billion for rice price subsidy.

The NFA, he said, bought only 235,000 tons of palay last year. He said very few farmers produce enough to sell. The small plowman can hardly produce enough for his family.

“We have very little production surplus over the needs of the rice farmer,” he said. “So we do not have enough palay to buy from the farmers.”

He said the per-capita consumption of rice in the Philippines stands at 120 kilos a year (published 05 September 2011)(Amado P Macasaet/Malaya)