Christmas food and agricultural productivity

Christmas food
Christmas shoppers line up to buy ham for "noche buena" —PHOTO FROM PNA.GOV.PH

What do Filipino households spend most on during Christmas? You guessed it: food. 

The Philippines is also the country that proportionately spends the most on Christmas food, according to a 2023 worldwide survey of 23 countries by WorldRemit. The survey classified Christmas spending according to three categories: food, decorations and gifts. A Filipino household on the average spends 60% of its Christmas budget on food, 33% on gifts, and 7% on decorations. Average total spending is US$614, or P34,872 at the time of the survey.

In comparison, an American household’s Christmas spending is the reverse. Americans spend the most on gifts (69%), next on decorations (19%) and least on food (12%).

In the same vein, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Filipinos spend on food 41.9%, or about  P42 for every P100 that the household earns. In comparison, Americans spend only 6.4% of their household income on food, and Singaporeans spend just 6.7%.

More recently, a 2018 Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas report said: “Food consumption accounted for the largest share in the total (Filipino) household expenditure (72.1%).”

Whatever the percentage may be now, it is safe to assume that a large portion of Filipino household income still goes to food. This being so, it can also be safely presumed that among our greatest preoccupations is working for, preparing, and consuming food.  

Whichever way one looks at it, that definitely makes us “Isang kahig, isang tuka.” Meaning we are a subsistence economy, with not much disposable income beyond meeting our most basic needs. 

We now have the unenviable distinction of being the world’s No. 1 rice importer. Despite the presence of the world-renowned International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna, where many of the world’s rice scientists and technicians have innovated and trained, and despite various programs from agrarian reform to irrigation, infrastructure and postharvest facilities, even the provision of online farming guides and databases, our agricultural productivity has remained abysmally low. So much so that, in an effort to turn things around, the President himself acted until recently as agriculture secretary, and billions of pesos in debt of agrarian reform beneficiaries have been written off to remove the debt burden on them and hopefully motivate and fund greater productivity. Yet, year in and year out our agriculture and fisheries sector is among the poorest performers.

Anyone citing the reasons for low agricultural productivity trots out the usual suspects, from devastating typhoons to lack of affordable credit to inadequate postharvest facilities to not having enough young farmers. And yet, and yet, and yet…

There is something more fundamentally wrong. No matter how much money you throw at the problem and whatever program you devise, agricultural productivity will remain low. Maybe a profit motive or the opportunity for profit is lacking. Maybe we were not meant to be farmers. Consider: We are among the world’s best seafarers, the world’s most caring nurses, the world’s most hardworking domestics, the world’s most wonderful singers—but we are the world’s worst farmers. The Israelis can make the desert bloom and their agricultural technicians are in great demand, but I have not heard of a single Filipino farmer being recruited to work abroad, unless one counts the utterly menial job of a fruit picker in some California or Hawaii plantation.

Or maybe the system is wrong. It is the large agribusiness corporations and the large property developers that prosper, and farmers just sell their land and become seafarers, nurses, domestics and singers instead.

“Generally speaking,” the WEF observed, “the more developed a country is, the smaller the percentage of household income it spends on food.” It further indicated that income disparity within a country correlates with the proportion of income spent on food: “Over the past 25 years, the poorest 20% of households in the US spent between 28.8% and 42.6% on food, compared with 6.5% to 9.2% spent by the wealthiest 20% of households.”

There clearly is a relationship between the level of development and the percentage of household income spent on food. The bigger the income, the smaller the proportion of the food expense, and of course, the smaller the income, the bigger the proportion spent on basic sustenance. 

One can make other interesting observations as well. For example, the United States proportionately spends the least on food and yet obesity among Americans is of epidemic proportions. We spend the most on food and yet malnutrition is widespread. According to the World Food Programme, 27% (or almost 1 out of 3) of Filipino children under 5 years old suffer from stunting.

Thus, more than anything, it is economic disparity and the structures that perpetuate it that must be addressed. Our import-oriented, service-focused, consumer-driven economic mindset will always stunt agricultural production.

Nevertheless, it is Christmas. And whether rich or poor, eating and eating well are among life’s greatest pleasures. Whether by yourself or in the company of others. Preferably in the company of others, especially loved ones, and especially during Christmas. A pleasure shared, a journey shared. 

Thus, the market, the kitchen and the dining table are the happiest places on earth. Our gut is our second brain, it is said. And what a smart one it is. No wonder happiness surveys always show Filipinos as among the happiest people on earth. We know what’s important: food. And the kinship it brings, especially during the season of blessed abundance and rebirth.

Read more: 5 Christmas parties while exploring for mines in 3 countries

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