President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr., sitting as the country’s farm secretary, wanted rice and corn production increased in the remaining months of the year to stave off a looming food crisis.

The cost of rice per kilo–the main staple–is projected to rise by three pesos a kilo, putting pressure on Marcos who promised to bring down prices to 20 pesos per kilo. The price of rice in the market has risen to more than 40 pesos per kilo.

Ramping up rice production is a tall order. But it is not impossible.
Before Marcos was elected president, Rodrigo Duterte’s administration had been aiming to harvest 21 million metric tons of rice from the country’s less than 5 million hectares of ricelands.

The current rice production per hectare is about 4.31 metric tons, bringing the sufficiency level to 95 percent. The Philippines is among the world’s top rice importers.

Vietnam and Thailand are the world’s top rice exporters. In 2020, Vietnam harvested 42.8 million metric tons of rice while Thailand came second with 30 million metric tons. Indonesia actually produced more rice than Vietnam and Thailand at 54.6 million metric tons.

But, like the Philippines, Indonesia’s huge population consumes more rice than it produces, and it has to import the grain from other countries. China led all nations in rice production at 211 million metric tons but it also has more than a billion mouths to feed.

The 4.3-metric-tons-per-hectare yield is a record-high compared with less than two metric tons per hectare during the late dictator’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s despite his “Masagana 99” program.

Introduced in 1973 by elder Marcos to promote rice sufficiency in two to three years by using a high-yielding variety seed, low-cost fertilizers, and herbicides, the program had initial success when the Philippines started exporting rice in 1977.

But the program eventually failed as many farmers failed to repay loans, and it was mainly used as a political tool to win patronage from poor farmers. The credit scheme was not sustainable, forcing the elder Marcos to shift to other programs to increase rice production.

But rapid population growth, the limited size of farmlands suitable for rice farming, and the annual typhoon season have made it difficult for local farmers to increase production.

In sharp contrast, both Thailand and Vietnam have smaller populations, more contiguous land for rice farms, and less destructive typhoons, allowing the two Southeast Asian countries to export excess production.

Rice farming in the Philippines uses outdated practices, like plowing the field with carabaos. Rice farms need to mechanize, build grain silos, and build more farm-to-mill roads.

Duterte’s farm officials said the country needed to invest more than 240 billion pesos to modernize rice farms, but the agriculture department’s annual budget is less than 100 billion pesos.

Agriculture contributes roughly 10 percent of the annual GDP but in the last two years, the agriculture sector’s GDP has contracted due the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Marcos has placed agriculture at the center of his administration’s policies and programs, taking over the farm portfolio to supervise agriculture’s growth.

Marcos said the economy would bounce back better and grow to more than 10 to 12 percent annually if there was robust agriculture. But Marcos has not laid down a concrete roadmap on how to achieve rice sufficiency other than introducing his own version of the “Masagana” program–the 150 and 200 versions.

Under the proposed “Masagana 150” and “Masagana 200,” the agriculture department plans to increase rice yield per hectare to 7.5 metric tons and 10 metric tons, respectively.

These are ambitious goals. There are many things left undone before local ricelands can produce record yields per hectare.

Government has to heavily subsidize the farm sector and dismantle the so-called rice cartel which has made middlemen richer at the expense of poor farmers.

It is also more profitable to import rice than to grow the staple where there is no adequate storage and transport system. A huge portion of domestic production is wasted on antiquated farming and poor post-harvest practices.

An additional pressure is the rise of fertilizer costs and supply shortage due to the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Russia is one of the world’s biggest fertilizer suppliers.

But the biggest problem for Marcos is the livestock and poultry sector because of the global supply shortage brought about by tight supply of animal feed and the destructive African Swine Flu (ASF). It nearly wiped out the hog population on mainland Luzon and some parts in Mindanao.

Global wheat supply was also affected by the war in Eastern Europe. The Philippines imports wheat to be used as animal feed.

Marcos wants to raise corn production to cushion pressure from animal feed shortages.

The looming food crisis is Marcos’ toughest test as a leader. It will make or break his administration. He has put so much faith in the “Masagana” program. He should avoid mistakes made by his father’s rice production program by removing politics in the rice sufficiency program and truly help poor landless farmers.

His targets are quite ambitious but doable. Let’s hope the weather will cooperate and there will be less destructive typhoons in the months ahead.