By Jaime C. Laya

Covid-19 has cancelled events but in normal times, May 15 is a special day in Lucban (Quezon), in Pulilan (Bulacan), and in about two dozen other places. Carabaos walk on their knees in Pulilan and in Lucban’s Pahiyas Festival, houses bloom with kiping, brightly colored leaf-shaped rice wafers. They honor San Isidro Labradór, the hired farm laborer who became a saint 500 years ago.  

Landowner Juan de Vargas hired Isidro de Merely Quintana (1070-1130) to work his fields outside the then small village of Madrid.  Isidro was known for his piety, generosity to the poor and kindness to animals but his co-workers griped that Isidro was always late to work. The complaints ended when one day they discovered an angel plowing the fields for him. Other miracles were ascribed to Isidro who was canonized in 1622. He is the patron saint of Madrid, exalting the dignity of manual work and demonstrating how ordinary life can lead to holiness.

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San Isidro Labradór, painting on panel, ca. 1800. It could be by a Bohol artist, although connoisseur Don Conrado Escudero surmises that it may have been painted in a place with many Chinese immigrants such as Biñan, Laguna

San Isidro is also the saint of our time. We are now the world’s largest rice importer, buying 2.9 million tons in 2019 from our neighbors Vietnam and Thailand.

Rice and corn imports cost us PhP45.8 billion and PhP15.7 billion respectively in 2018. We also import wheat that we mill into flour and soymeal needed by our piggeries. We are short, too, of onions, garlic, and mongo beans. The question is how we can feed ourselves, assuming we have enough foreign exchange, if there is drought, pest, flooding, civil unrest, or other disturbance in our supplier countries.

The Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) and other groups have long expressed the need for greater attention to agriculture, bringing up points including the following.  

Economics paints the broad picture. Our production cost is high and imported rice is cheap. Higher productivity is essential to reduce cost, in turn pointing to the need for better rice varieties, adequate water supply, fertile soil, pest control, post-harvest processing efficiency, more efficient distribution, soil fertility, better cultivation methods, crop insurance, etc.  

Important is the political question of who should be kept content—city people with cheaper rice or rural people with palay price high enough to recover cost and provide a reasonable standard of living for farmer families. The answer has usually been city people. Farmers deserves a better deal.

Almost 50 years have passed since President Ferdinand E. Marcos subjected rice and corn land to agrarian reform. With increasing population, the likely impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on employment and OFW remittances and the need to revive the economy, it is timely to evaluate the half-century experience and to resolve open matters once and for all. Fragmented land ownership vs. large scale corporate farming has been a contentious issue. Certain policies could also explain why formerly productive agricultural land now lie fallow.  

Population and economic growth have caused the conversion of formerly agricultural land to factory, warehouse and residential use, shopping malls, parking lots. Traveling through rich agricultural land in Southern Tagalog, Central Luzon, Cagayan Valley, and everywhere else, one notices new construction in unexpected locations, amid green fields while nearby urban areas remain blighted. Strict zoning regulations as is done in other countries will help preserve agricultural land and encourage the upgrading of already built and underused areas.

Water supply is a must for agricultural production. Angat Dam supplies Manila waterworks, Luzon power, and Bulacan agriculture. Agriculture is the first to suffer when Angat level is low. The solution is clearly more water sources, reforestation, and watershed protection, noting that illegal logging appears unchecked in the Angat watershed.

Middlemen are essential in a distribution system. They consolidate the output of numerous producers, financing them as needed. They are the links in the supply chain that bring agricultural produce from farm to dining table. The perennial complaint is that middlemen charge too much—the farmer-supplier gets too little while the final consumer pays through the nose. Farmer cooperatives for processing and distribution have been offered as a solve-all but Philippine experience has been mixed. This is clearly a matter that needs a solution.

Farmers pray to San Isidro.  Consumers need to do the same.

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Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/05/22/give-us-this-day-our-daily-rice/)