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Hunger Stalks the Country’s Food Basket

Hunger Stalks the Country’s Food Basket

Jan 14, 2012

HUNGER STALKS THE COUNTRY’S FOOD BASKET by Billy de la Rosa Close to a fourth of households in Mindanao have been found to suffer from hunger. What might strike one as supreme irony is that the region with the most incidence of hunger is also the country’s food basket. The idea of Mindanao as the country’s food basket was first hatched during the Ramos presidency. It was picked up and continued by succeeding presidents from the short-lived Estrada to the Arroyo administration. During her recent visit to Davao City on the occasion of the 13th Mindanao Business Conference, President Macapagal-Arroyo said that in line with the government’s food basket policy for Mindanao she wanted that most of the two million hectares targeted for agribusiness development under her 10-point legacy agenda should be in Mindanao. “Because Mindanao is the food basket of the country, I’d like to develop Mindanao as the agribusiness center of the country,” she said. Agribusiness Thus, the food basket strategy for Mindanao has been translated into an agribusiness strategy, which in turn became an export-oriented agribusiness strategy. During the last Mindanao Food Congress, Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza emphasized that Mindanao must look to foreign markets for its agricultural food products with east Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) an immediate target. “There is a big market out there when we look at the 50 million BIMP-EAGAns”, Dureza told the participants of the food congress. He was referring to huge market potential of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, which, together with the Philippines, comprise the east Asian growth area. His remarks were echoed by Charles Feibel, program chief of party of the Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program, who went further by saying that an accelerated development for Mindanao should be promoted “to make it the food basket of Asia.” GEM is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Mindanao as food basket for the country and food supplier of the world is not really a new concept. In the past, Mindanao was called the “rice bowl” of the country next to Central Luzon’s “rice granary” title. As early as the 1930s, Mindanao exported pineapple to the US market through the American agribusiness giant Del Monte. After the Second World War, coconut production grew in Mindanao in response to the demand for coconut oil in Europe and the US for the manufacture of cooking oil, margarine and other food products. Pineapple Today, a good portion of the country’s agricultural food production comes from Mindanao. Coconut, banana and pineapple are among the country’s most important agricultural exports. Sadly, the drive to make Mindanao the country’s food basket has contributed to chronic hunger that is made worse by economic shocks brought about by natural or man-made disasters. Not too long ago, newspapers headlined deaths among the upland population in Mindanao as a result of hunger brought about by El Niño. Upland dwellers were reduced to eating poisonous wild yam to stave off hunger. The periodic outbreak of war between the forces of the Moro liberation fronts and government forces has disrupted livelihoods and destroyed farms and means of production, affecting people’s capacity to produce food and to feed themselves. Because agricultural food production has been supplanted by agribusiness, the emphasis has shifted from meeting domestic needs to filling the demand of global markets. The total land area devoted to banana, pineapple, oil palm and other high-value export crops has increased while that for food crops like rice has decreased. As a result, rice self-sufficiency had dropped from 90 percent in 1995 to 66 percent in 2000. People in the past had been at least able to feed themselves with food that they themselves produced. With the advent of export crop production and plantation agriculture, people must rely on their incomes to obtain their food requirements. Chronic poverty The promise of prosperity from export crop production has not been realized for most Mindanaoans even as agribusiness capitalist and landed families have amassed untold wealth from agribusiness ventures in Mindanao. Half of all Mindanao provinces belong to the country’s 25 poorest provinces. At least half of the population in most of these provinces lives below the poverty threshold. Invariably, poverty and hunger go hand in hand. In its report on the Millenium Development Goals, government admits that poverty is a major cause of food intake inadequacy, particularly in the rural areas. Official statistics indicate that per capita food supply outstrips food requirement by 45 percent. There is enough food to go around but people don't have money to buy enough to meet their needs. Official statistics look even worse than results of the Social Weather Station’s hunger survey of August 2004. Three out of four of the poorest Mindanao provinces saw dramatic increases in the number of families that are unable to meet their food requirements between 1997 and 2000. In half of the cases, the increases exceeded 30 percent. The 1998 offensive waged by the Estrada administration against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front cost about P250 million in rice and corn production in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. The Department of Agriculture estimated that 12,000 hectares were rendered unproductive as a result of the fighting. The uncertain political outlook has prevented full rehabilitation of these farms. Tens of thousands of families in the war-affected areas had been displaced by war. Many of them continue to live in evacuation centers and protection areas, only visiting their farms during the day. Economic life has been disrupted. It is not surprising, therefore, that the provinces worst affected by the conflict are also the poorest provinces in Mindanao. They have also the highest increases in the incidence of hunger. The global economic shock brought about by the war in Iraq has exacerbated chronic hunger in Mindanao. Increases in the cost of fuel and petroleum-based products have increased agricultural production and transport costs. Fertilizer prices have increased 50 percent thus eating into farmers’ incomes. Increases in farm gate prices of corn, for example, have been virtually offset by increases in production and transport costs. Small farmers are especially vulnerable. The government response to the hunger situation – distributing food coupons to the poor – is mitigation, not cure. Clearly, a more strategic approach is in order. The two most important are: 1) the hastening of the Mindanao peace process; and 2) a re-examination of priorities in the government’s Mindanao agricultural policies.# (Published in: Focus on the Philippines No. 40, http://focusweb.org/oldphilippines/content/view/84/6/)

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