Masagana redux

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Eclipsed by the controversy over the Maharlika Investment Fund was another “Marcos rehabilitation” program of Ferdinand Junior: Masagana 99 redux, launched on May 31 as the Masagana Rice Industry Development Program.

The goal of the program, according to President Marcos, is 97.5 percent rice sufficiency by the time his term ends in 2028. The 97.5 percent, he said, “is a good enough number” instead of 100 percent because what will still be imported are “niche products” such as specialty rice.

Ferdinand Marcos the elder launched Masagana 99 in 1973 alongside extensive land reform and credit access to farmers. The program used rice production technologies developed by the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños to boost the harvest.

There is disagreement on the results of Masagana 99. A prevailing assessment is that it had both good and bad results. Among the negatives: the lack of sustained farm support led to many farmers defaulting on their loans and selling their rice lands, which in turn led to about 800 rural banks going bankrupt.

This time, we’re hearing commitments again for farm support to make Masagana work. Whether the support will materialize and be sustained remains to be seen.

BBM wants to rehabilitate the Masagana name, alongside his effort to realize his campaign “aspiration” for rice at P20 a kilo.

The aspiration is a long way from attainment. About two weeks ago I bought my usual two-month supply of local well-milled rice from my suki wholesaler, and prices had gone up by P3 to P4 per kilo, ranging from P49 to P52.

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Agriculture scientist Leocadio Sebastian, former director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute, says the P20-a-kilo rice must be market-driven rather than a subsidized price at the Kadiwa outlets, where rice is being sold at P25 a kilo.

Sebastian has been named undersecretary for rice industry development in the Department of Agriculture. It’s his resurrection after his ignominious ouster as senior DA undersecretary over an aborted importation of sugar at the start of the Marcos 2.0 administration.

Sugar prices have remained sky-high, reportedly earning billions for the well-connected greedy cartel, so Sebastian must be feeling relieved that the commodity is no longer his responsibility.

On One News’ “The Chiefs” last week, Sebastian observed wryly that while he distinguished himself in rice, “I became famous – or infamous – because of sugar. Iba talaga ang Pilipinas.”

Considering his impressive credentials as a rice scientist, did he feel underappreciated? “Hindi naman. Siguro ganon lang talaga tayong mga Pilipino.”

Sebastian remembers the days when agriculture players from other Asian countries went to the Philippines to study rice farming.

Working in Vietnam on climate-smart mapping and adaptation planning, he received in 2019 the Medal for Contribution to the Cause of Agriculture and Rural Development from that country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

This is the highest honor given by Hanoi to individuals, mostly foreigners; Sebastian received it for his contribution to rice production in Vietnam.

From teaching foreigners how to produce rice, the Philippines now imports a lot of rice from Vietnam and Thailand.

What did the two countries do right, and where did we go wrong?

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Sebastian cites two reasons. One is failure to attain scale: Thais, Vietnamese, even Indonesians and Malaysians adopted rice technology they learned from the Philippines and scaled it up nationwide.

“We developed a lot of things, but small-scale,” Sebastian noted. “Happy na tayo.”

Second is the lack of long-term planning and consistency. Sebastian pointed out that Malaysia has a 10-year plan and five-year budgeting for national rice production; Vietnam has 10 to 12 years for planning and implementation.

In the Philippines, agricultural production plans change not only when there is a new president but even when there is a new secretary of agriculture, Sebastian lamented.

“We want solutions right away,” he said.

Also, while the Philippines gives subsidies to farmers, he said the Thais focus on improving post-harvest facilities and the other parts of the value chain.

Unfortunately for Filipino farmers, official pronouncements to improve post-harvest facilities have largely failed to go beyond rhetoric.

Sebastian said the Masagana program aims to address these problems through a national development plan that will mobilize the private sector, including millers, rice traders and micro, small and medium enterprises involved in the industry.

“If we are to improve production, we also have to improve other parts of the value chain – something that other countries are doing,” he said.

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Apart from adjusting the rice planting calendar to maximize production, farmers will be encouraged to bring down costs by shifting to a balanced blend of organic, chemical and bio fertilizer. This can be done on a large scale, Sebastian said.

A farmers’ cooperative has sold rice to Kadiwa at just P25 a kilo, he pointed out, because the members were able to bring down the cost of production to just P7 per kilo of palay, mainly by using bio fertilizer, which consists mostly of microorganisms. (This is different from organic fertilizers such as vermicompost.) Sebastian, however, says a balanced blend of fertilizers is needed to maximize production without harming the soil.

Weaning farmers from 100 percent urea or chemical fertilizer will also be inevitable down the line, he said, because such fertilizers, while providing high rice yield faster, are gradually eroding soil fertility.

“We want (the soil) to have a balanced diet,” he said.

He acknowledged that synthetic fertilizer, which the country imports 100 percent (mostly from the Russia-Ukraine war theater) is a business and there is resistance to the introduction of more bio fertilizers in the mix.

“There are also vested interests that would like to protect their interests,” he said. “But for sustainability, we cannot continue relying on synthetics.”

Sebastian says rice self-sufficiency is possible, but he stresses that this should not be at the expense of small rice farmers. The overriding objective, he says, must be improving the income of farmers rather than merely giving them subsidies.

“Rice self-sufficiency is a good objective, but we have to be careful with the approach… to ensure that our farmers will not be at the losing end,” he said. “It should be an outcome rather than the objective.”

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