The Philippines is one of the countries in the world facing challenges in food security. To at least ensure food availability, the Philippine government has adopted food importation as a strategy such that in 2021, the country’s Food Balance Sheet recorded an import dependency ratio of 25.1% according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Hence, despite being blessed with arable lands and marine resources, the country has been considered as the second largest importer of rice in the world, registering $1.2 billion worth of rice imports, and is the 8th largest importer of fish and crustaceans in Asia worth $625.66 million in the year 2021.
The farmers are usually at the receiving end of the food security debacle blame game. They are usually accused of not possessing the necessary knowledge, technology, and information. All these indeed contribute to low productivity resulting in low if not unpredictable food supply. Blaming farmers, even ridiculing them, is exemplified by Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban’s statement in a radio interview on the “oversupply” of garlic and cabbage sometime in 2022. He said that the Filipino farmers are planting without thinking as to where to sell their crops.
Businessmen are likewise blamed for our country’s food security problem — those who are engaged in hoarding and price manipulation. Smugglers, for doing illegal and reprehensible acts, are easy and visible targets. They flood the markets with imported agricultural produce. But when government restricts imports at a time of severe shortage, smuggling becomes lucrative. Like it or not, smuggled products (abetted by misguided government policy) helps alleviate the shortage.
In that case, government is also blameworthy for perpetuating policies that worsen the country’s food security.
The tear-jerker tale of onion prices skyrocketing from P50 to P700 per kilo illustrates the problem. Agriculture Assistant Secretary Kristine Evangelista blamed the traders for the spike in the farmgate price of onions, which reached between P550 and P670 per kilo in December trades. The Food Terminal, Inc., a government-owned and -controlled corporation, was dragged into the controversy as it procured onions at a high price but sold them at much lower prices in Kadiwa stores. The tragic part is that consumers and taxpayers are shouldering the high onion farmgate price even as our farmers remain impoverished.
The blame game and the food security debacle, however, could be traced to the systemic problem of low farm productivity and output leading to perennial supply problems. The situation becomes a crisis when shocks suddenly appear.
Notwithstanding the systemic problems, the Department of Agriculture (DA) could have still anticipated supply shocks if it had been actively utilizing, promoting, and sharing agricultural data. With readily available and accessible data, flip-flopping decisions on sugar and onion importation, for example, could have been avoided and the supply of the goods could have been smoothly managed.
The same could have guided the DA to come up with evidence-based agriculture policies, not just in addressing supply gaps but, more importantly, in increasing the efficiency and productivity of agriculture and farmers. The DA will know what agricultural inputs and technologies to provide, to whom, and to where. Making the information publicly available can also strengthen anti-corruption mechanisms and eliminate schemes similar to the liquid fertilizer scandals.
Data is an empowering tool. With readily available and accessible data, farmers will be guided on what to plant, when, and how much, to avoid overproduction of one agricultural product and underproduction on others. They will also have a basis in asking the government, particularly the local government units (LGUs), for the support they need. Otherwise, as Inso Ubalde, the municipal administrator of Irosin in Sorsogon province, told us: “Lacking information makes us in the LGUs in a bind on what to provide the farmers. Worse, addressing the requests for agricultural inputs is not met on time because of the [obsolete] procurement process. Hence, we really need a system where everybody can have a look on a timely and reliable data.”
Real-time data can also help traders and logistics service providers locate and move overconcentrated agricultural produce to where they are needed most. For the government, real time data can eradicate unnecessary layers in the food supply chain, including price speculation and manipulation, and discourage the entry of unscrupulous traders. This can also put to good use the intelligence fund of the nation’s Chief Executive who is also the concurrent Agriculture Secretary, as available data can provide clues on possible cases of hoarding and price manipulation.
Unfortunately, the undeniable reality is that agriculture data are outdated and hardly accessible, and if available, they need to be re-encoded to make them available to the public. In addition, the different local interpretations on agricultural data-sharing policies vary from one regional field office to another.
Only some regional offices allow access to the Registry System for the Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA) — an electronic database containing basic information of farmers and fisherfolks, and members of DA-accredited farmer organizations. The provinces of Romblon and Leyte have passed Sangguniang Panlalawigan resolutions urging the DA to share anonymized RSBSA datasets, but it looks like that these resolutions have yet to be tabled for discussion.
Problems on data availability and access are the major obstacles of LGUs trying to create data-sharing platforms for their farmers and markets. Instead of directly focusing on platform development, LGUs still have to problematize where and how to source the data, and where to source funds for re-encoding or cleaning. Such is the experience of the LGUs of Mina in Iloilo and Irosin in Sorsogon as they continue to develop the Municipal Agriculture Information System, Farmers Agriculture Resource Management System (MAIS-FARMS) and the Integrated Management of Agri-fishery Production and Market for the Development of Irosin (IMAProMDI), respectively. Both systems attempt to provide real-time agricultural production and marketing information in order to link farmers and their produce directly to premium markets and direct buyers while at the same time arm the LGUs with information on the appropriate intervention they need to provide and prioritize.
Simply put, by making data available and accessible, the DA will be strategically equipped to realize its vision of a food-secure and resilient Philippines with empowered and prosperous farmers and fishers.
But will the DA under President Bongbong Marcos, who is the concurrent Agriculture Secretary, open the gates for information and data sharing?
Jay A. Carizo is a local governance specialist working with the Galing Pook Foundation that has partnered with Action for Economic Reforms in the COLLABDev Project, a data-driven development program. He has conducted a number of studies on food security and nutrition with a special focus on the food supply chain.