Rice is not only a staple food. It is a highly political issue.

Governments, not only in the Philippines, rise and fall with rice supply and prices.

It was, in fact, a centerpiece program of the first Marcos administration with “Masagana 99,” and his son has also made it one of his priorities.

Bongbong Marcos has placed his political reputation on bringing down rice prices to 20 pesos per kilo.

It is a pipe dream. He can only achieve his 20-pesos-a-kilo rice if the government will heavily subsidize grain prices.

However, this is not sustainable and the initial experience was that the government’s buffer stock was depleted.

Rice is a strategic commodity as precious as oil and gas. Rice farmers are a powerful voting bloc in most Southeast Asian states, like Thailand, as well as in Japan.

But, in the Philippines, rice farmers are the most neglected and among the poorest sectors of society.

Why is it too difficult to stabilize rice prices in the Philippines?

A quick tour at wet markets will show that rice prices have gone up to more than 50 pesos per kilo for the local well-milled variety.

Imported rice can go as high as 65 pesos per kilo.

In a video message, Bongbong Marcos was confident rice prices would soon start to stabilize as farmers were set to harvest their produce in many parts of the country, like Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, and in Mindanao.

However, it would not be enough to lower rice prices as rice production would still fall short of rice demand and consumption.

Even if the agriculture department reported a dramatic increase in rice production in the first quarter of the year, there would still be a shortfall in the year-on-year production.

There are natural forces beyond the government’s control to achieve rice sufficiency in the country.

For instance, the Philippines has less land area cultivated to rice than its neighboring countries, like Thailand and Vietnam, the second- and third- largest rice exporting countries in the world.

Thailand and Vietnam have contiguous areas for rice production. The Philippines is an archipelago with limited areas for rice production.

In the Philippines, rice fields have been converted into residential, commercial, and industrial areas.

There are also poor irrigation facilities in many upland rice farms, which depend on annual ricefall.

Too much rain also destroys rice farms. Annually, the Philippines is visited by an average of 20 typhoons, some of which are destructive.

Recently, two typhoons — “Egay” (international name “Doksuri”) and “Falcon” (international name “Khanun”) — inundated large swathes of farmlands in the Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley regions.

Doksuri also destroyed farmlands in China while Khanun brought destruction in Japan and South Korea.

In a big way, weather disturbances affect rice production in the country. These typhoons sometimes affect areas in Vietnam but they cause more damage first in the Philippines.

A third factor is the population. The Philippines might produce as much as those in Thailand and Vietnam with a smaller rice production area but it has more mouths to feed.

Thailand and Vietnam have a population of about 70 to 80 million people but the Philippines has more than 110 million people.

That could probably be the reason why both Thailand and Vietnam could export their excess rice production and the Philippines would need about 2 million metric tons each year.

Worse, rice traders control prices of rice in the country.

These traders would buy the grains from rice farmers at lower cost and store them in warehouses and create artificial shortages to jack up prices.

In 2018, a rice tariffication law was passed by Congress to help local farmers improve production and get more revenues, but the reverse happened.

Prices have been rising steadily and rice farmers have no control over their produce.

Before the farmers could plant rice, they already had committed the production to traders.

Traders also control the importation of rice, denying government intervention.

Globally, rice prices have gone up after India, the world’s largest grain producer, imposed a ban on rice exports.

Thailand and Vietnam were forced to increase costs and many importers hesitated to buy rice abroad.

The rice traders would rely on domestic production instead of imports, competing with the government’s National Food Authority (NFA).

In a way, this could help local farmers earn more by selling unmilled rice at 22 pesos per kilo from 19 pesos kilo.

For consumers, it would mean higher rice prices.

Bongbong Marcos said the government has been monitoring rice prices and would review the rice tariffication law to bring back some of the NFA’s regulatory powers.

Marcos can do a lot in dismantling the rice cartel controlling prices and supply in the local market.

Many administrations since the time of Cory Aquino until Rodrigo Duterte have tried taking on the rice cartels but failed.

Perhaps, Marcos can succeed this time.

He can also help improve productivity and provide more subsidies to rice farmers.

But Marcos remains helpless in managing the other factors, like weather disturbances, rice production areas, and population growth.

Rice will remain one of the biggest political issues for Bongbong Marcos not only as a president but as an agriculture secretary.

It will affect his popularity and diminish his support level if prices continue to rise and supply becomes tight.