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Why Rice? A Discussion on the Filipino’s Favorite Carb

June 21, 2019

When introducing themselves, whether to new visitors at their compound in UP Los Baños, or on the about page of their website, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) plays a video with a message that almost anyone who has lived in Asia knows by heart, “Rice is life.” As a staple, it also has historical, cultural, and political significance. A stroll through IRRI’s Riceworld Museum exhibits how rice is already deeply ingrained in the Asian consciousness, making its way from the field to the dining areas of people in the billions.

Even as more alternative staples such as noodles and bread are being picked up by the average Filipino, rice is still the staple of choice.

Even as more alternative staples such as noodles and bread are being picked up by the average Filipino, rice is still the staple of choice. A study by the Southeast Asian Regional Center (SEARCA) for Graduate Research and Study, commissioned by the the Philippine Rice Research Institute, found that while rice consumption has declined in the region, per capita consumption in the Philippines rose. However, even as a rice-growing and rice-eating country, the Philippines remains the second-largest importer of rice in the world.

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However, even as a rice-growing and rice-eating country, the Philippines remains the second-largest importer of rice in the world.

With the El Niño phenomenon expected to occur later this year, the world’s eyes are on the Philippines, and its effect on the country’s rice harvest and imports. When the staple is threatened, instability follows, as witnessed in East Timor in 2006 and 2007 when violence followed a rice shortage in an already a tense and militarized area. Here in the Philippines, Davao City’s Mayor Rodrigo Duterte made headlines when he threatened an accused rice smuggler with death just last February.

Following the Grains

Adarna House published ‘Alamat ng Palay’, a rice legend, in 1992, where a man and his family from the earliest days of existence wandered from place to place in search of better hunting grounds. On one bad hunt day, rice seeds whispered to the man to plant them, so they may always be fed, and no longer have to find new grounds to stay fed. Other regions have their own take on the origin of rice, but similar themes have come up. Rice was what grounded people, for example, or rice was a gift from the Gods to ensure long life.

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Rice has not always been the staple of choice for Filipinos. It was served for festive occasions because it entailed the observance of a spiritual ritual.

A paper published in 2008 by Filomeno V. Aguilar for the Philippine Institute for Development Studies cites studies discussing how the harvest of rice was a religious ritual, especially for Igorots. More interesting perhaps is how rice has not always been the staple of choice for Filipinos. Rice was produced in limited quantities, and was considered “prestige food”. It was served for festive occasions because it entailed the observance of a spiritual ritual.

Because of the “luxury”, archaeological evidence points out that rice was once the food of the elite members of the tribe, given as tribute to chiefs. The staples in pre-colonial Philippines were mostly root crops, such as taro, yam, and millet. Rice was, according to Aguilar based on his studies, “A marker of social, ecological, and geographic differentiation. It stood for social stratification. It was highly valued and desired, but was not a staple food.”

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As rice became a commodity and farming progressed over the years, the Spaniards also took interest in cultivating other crops, which meant less land available for farming rice.

When the Spanish occupied the Philippines, rice remained a valued food crop, and the Spanish introduced plow technology. Agricultural development, such as water gathering in large reservoirs, the creation of dams, and the conversion of marshlands into the fields, followed to help the Spaniards finance the colonization. Export agriculture developed sometime in the eighteenth century. Rice production increased. Surplus rice was given as tribute or in some cases, as payments for rent. As agricultural methods advanced, rice was no longer a seasonal offering. It was made available all year long, with enough to feed entire villages. It was also around this time period that rice grew to become the staple, not just for the elites, but for everyone. From 1830 to 1870, rice surpluses in Luzon made it possible to export the grain.

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As rice became a commodity and farming progressed over the years, the Spaniards also took interest in cultivating other crops, which meant less land available for farming rice. Some studies argue that agricultural technology then was insufficient to keep up with the needs of a growing population, and new rice farming methods slowed down. Infestations and calamities also weakened rice production, which resulted in a steady rise of imports from 1870 onwards. Studies even considered the possibility that imports were a tactic to keep colonial powers in their place, with less power put in the locals and their land.

In times of shortage, especially during critical times such as World War II, locals sometimes returned to root crops to keep themselves fed. But by then, they were no longer considered “real food” compared to rice.

Annual rice production in the Philippines increased from 3.7 to 7.7 million tonnes in two decades, and made the country a top rice exporter again

A turning point in rice history was in 1960, with the formation of IRRI in University of the Philippines Los Baños followed by their development of cultivar IR8. IR8 was found to produce higher yields than traditional cultivars, and was used to help combat famine in India during that era. Annual rice production in the Philippines increased from 3.7 to 7.7 million tonnes in two decades, and made the country a top rice exporter again. The discovery was nicknamed “miracle rice”. But the miracle came at a cost: use of IR8 required heavy pesticide use, which caused populations of frogs and fish species to dwindle by the 1970s.

The sixties also saw an expansion of Philippine irrigation, to encourage more agricultural productivity. While the country enjoyed a time of sustainability with their rice supply, that all changed in the 1980s when drought and economic problems hit. Rice had to be imported again. A severe drought in the 1990s forced the country to import around 400,000 tonnes of rice. From there, import grew. In 2010, the Philippines was named top world importer of rice, with 2,600 metric tonnes imported, according to a factbox by Reuters.

Rice Now

 

The geographic nature of the Philippines is a major consideration in the rice problem.

The geographic nature of the Philippines is a major consideration in the rice problem. As an archipelago made up of small islands, it is not ideal for rice production, and has significantly less area for rice cultivation. That, aggravated by a growing population, and the problems of adverse weather and propensity for storms, the dream of self-sustainability with rice has major challenges to overcome. Yolanda destroyed a forecasted 77,476 hectares of rice crops. That’s 2% of the 3 million hectares of rice lands in the Philippines according to the Department of Agriculture. As the storms get worse, how much more will be lost in the storms to follow?

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If it’s a matter of redefining the staple, clearly, it would take a revolution to do it.

There are ongoing efforts to answer the threats to our rice. IRRI continues to develop new high-yielding rice varieties, strategies, and technologies in order to protect harvest here, the rest of the Asia, and the world, in cooperation with agencies and local government. They have also bioengineered varieties of rice to be resistant to hazards such as flooding, drought, and saltwater, and are currently developing Golden Rice—a rice rich in Vitamin A to address Vitamin A deficiency.

Department of Agriculture (DA) and PhilRice, or the Philippine Rice Research Institute, has created the Climate Change Center, tasked with conducting studies on understanding, impact assessment, and lessening the effects of climate change to the rice industry. DA has also introduced alternative staples, such as maize, but obviously, that has not taken off.

Also according to the DA’s Pinoy Rice Knowledge Bank, local rice production increased to 16.68 million metric tons in 2011. But as reports pointed out, as production increases, so does consumption.

If it’s a matter of redefining the staple, clearly, it would take a revolution to do it.

Are you a heavy rice eater? Or are you a Filipino who prefers another staple? What are your thoughts on the Philippines as a rice importer? Share it with us in the comments.

Sources:
1. Aguilar Jr., Filomeno V. Rice in the Filipino Diet and Culture. Philippine Institute for Development Studies; 2008. http://www.pids.gov.ph/rps.php?id=4417&pubyear=2012
IRRI, Why does the Philippines Import Rice?
http://irri.org/news/hot-topics/why-does-the-philippines-import-rice Accessed June 2014
2. Anonuevo, V., Gamos A. Ang Alamat ng Palay. Aklat Adarna http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Tagalog/Tagalog_for_Kids/Picture_Stories/Palay/Palay1.htm Accessed June 2014
3. McGeon, Kate. The Philippines tries to reduce its dependency on rice, BBC News, Manila. July 11, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-14102518
4. Thukral, Naveen. Factbox – Top 10 rice exporting, importing Countries. Reuters. January 28, 2011. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/01/28/uk-rice-exporters-idUKTRE70R1LY20110128?pageNumber=1

Mia Marci Mia Marci

Mia Marci likes sampling street food, even if she doesn't know what's in it. She's gotten sick to her stomach on occasion because of this hazardous curiosity, but even the strictest of doctors couldn't stop her. Mia also writes about video games, travel, and girly issues for other publications. She also teaches English and Creative Writing. In the little spare time she has left, she catches up on film and TV shows, while cuddling up to her dog and cat.

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7 responses to “Why Rice? A Discussion on the Filipino’s Favorite Carb”

  1. I think the country’s conditions as an archipelago only has little to do with the decrease in rice production. We were able to produce rice before. I think increase in population and the resultant sprawl of residential areas into what was once vast holdings of rice fields is the real culprit here. Also, it is sad to note that the agroindustrial experts in the top rice-producing countries of the world (India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam) all trained in IRRI in UP Los Banos, and now we are sourcing our rice from these countries.

    • Mia Marci says:

      It’s tough to point the blame at any one thing in the local rice production problem. As said, archipelago is a “major consideration”, but the problem has many different sides to it, including what you mentioned. Good points to elaborate on for a possible future article. 😉

      While this article means to center on “Why Rice?”, it spun off into the state of rice from then to now, so I admit to making very careful calls on what should be elaborated. I can go on and on, really. It’s a very complex issue!

      Thanks for your input and reading, Noni! Appreciate it!

      • Indeed! There are a variety of reasons as to why we are lagging behind, and really, we could point to a lot of causal factors when trying to figure out why we are importing our most basic commodity. This is such a well-researched article, and I love how Pepper is going in-depth in issues and concerns that may affect our food security. It is a problem that we are dependent on external sources for rice, and this article somehow just skims over the causes to the shortage. But as you said, it goes overshoots the topic. It would be something awesome to see on a future post, maybe, since it is such an important issue. Great writing, Mia! Kudos!

        • Mia Marci says:

          Aw man, if it felt disjointed, my apologies. I’ll keep that in mind for future articles. But I, on behalf of the team super appreciate the feedback. Thank you!

      • guest2 says:

        as a farmer’s granddaughter I’ve seen through my life how farming has changed nowadays. In truth, there are so many factors to consider with the decrease of rice production. In my opinion, main reason why there is a decrease of the said production is because there are fewer and fewer farmers now. I remember as a young girl seeing tons and tons of rice being harvested back then and now seeing less. Back then there were a lot who plow the fields and take care of it. The younger generation now wouldn’t have much interest in agriculture. We are so into being globally competitive we no longer put or advertise agriculture as another thing that the younger generation may benefit a lot or a good science to study and develop.

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