Rice shortage hits poor as government grapples for solution

Like many poor Filipino families, Boyet and Milagros Navarro and their five children get by on just over US$2 a day. Boyet works as a welder in Baguio City on the northern island of Luzon and his wife is a part-time farm helper.

[See IRIN's food crisis in-depth coverage]

According to the 2006 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, the latest conducted by the country’s National Statistics Office, 68 million of the country's 90 million inhabitants live on or under US$2 a day.

The same survey shows that for every $2.40 in daily earnings, more than a third goes towards food expenses, while the rest is spent on medicine, clothing, education and other expenditures.

The Navarro family told IRIN they spend roughly US$1 a day on food, mostly rice, vegetables, some fish and occasionally meat, and because of their lean budget, they often skip a meal.

Hunger may become a regular fixture in their lives as rice prices continue to rise - this year alone, the average price of rice has increased by up to 17 US cents and Filipino families are bracing themselves for more belt-tightening measures.

“No more fish and meat”

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“We’re reduced to eating rice and vegetables. No more fish and meat,”
Milagros said. “My husband and I can survive on that, but what about the children?”

Already, the average retail price of rice is 72 US cents a kilo, from 60 US cents in 2007. And there is no sign that prices are going to stabilise soon, as global prices continue to soar.

The Navarros’ dilemma is common to many other families in the Philippines.

On the southern part of Luzon, in the Albay province of Bicol region, Mayor Noel Rosal of Legazpi City said many families there could no longer take regular meals because of high prices and the lack of supplies.

“This is not a joke. At 30 pesos per kilo (72 US cents), numerous families suffer from starvation,” Rosal said.

The staple food for the majority of Filipinos, rice, is considered a political commodity and the looming shortage and price increases could spell trouble for the government, some critics have said.

“The government has been hounded by political uncertainty, from allegations of graft and corruption, and a food crisis could stoke further unrest,” said Rafael Mariano, chairman of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), a militant peasant group.

Social unrest looming?

Opposition senator Loren Legarda, chair of the senate economic affairs committee, warned that a big surge in the staple’s price “is bound to spur social unrest and political instability going forward”.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has called on Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to guarantee some 1.5 million metric tons of rice this year.

Arroyo has also approved a US$68.5 million incremental budget to boost rice production, according to agriculture secretary Arthur Yap.

On 25 March, the president ordered a crackdown on rice hoarders, calling on Yap to ensure that cheap government rice would reach those who needed it most.

Other measures are also being proposed to address the problem, including an appeal to fast-food outlets throughout the country to offer half-portions of rice to patrons to prevent wastage, with fast-food owners agreeing to the proposal.

The social welfare and development department said it is preparing to issue rice coupons to poor families to cushion the impact of increasing prices.

The National Food Authority (NFA), which sells subsidised rice in some 22,000 selected outlets nationwide, has downplayed a food crisis and made assurances that there will be a steady supply of cheap rice in the market.

Worldwide rice shortage


Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
A woman sells grilled fish in a market in the Bacacay municipality of Albay Province in the Phillipines. Fish is the primary source of protein in the Filipino diet but is becoming increasingly unaffordable to the average citizen


A worldwide rice shortage has also affected the prices of NFA subsidised rice, up from 38 to 41 US cents last year to 43 to 48 US cents a kilo this year.

NFA public information director Rez Estoperez said the adjustment was necessary because the purchase price of imported rice had been increasing steadily.

Estoperez said the NFA had also initiated a clampdown on outlets suspected to be colluding with private traders to hoard rice and create an artificial shortage.

According to World Food Programme (WFP) country director Valerie Guarnieri, rising rice prices are putting pressure on the agency’s budget and could affect food assistance to about 1.1 million Filipinos in the conflict-affected areas on the southern island of Mindanao.

“It is straining our budget. In the medium term, we may reach less people as a result. As it is, we are already under funded,” Guarnieri said.

She estimates that WFP’s commodity cost has already swelled by 40 percent since rice prices began this increase, and WFP is appealing for at least US$500 million from donor countries to help fill the funding gap.

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