‘Let’s not be blind to history’ in enforcing new rice production program

Masagana 99

The strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was said to have achieved some measure of success in “Masagana 99,” when farmers harvested more palay per hectare in the late 1970s.

Backed by new technology, high-yielding varieties, cheap fertilizers and the construction of megadams in Luzon, the rice production program yielded modest surpluses for farmers for one or two years.  

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has taken a leaf from his late father’s program and announced his own “Masagana Rice Industry Development Program.” It is envisioned to achieve 97.5% rice sufficiency for the country by the time he steps down in 2028. 

“I don’t think it has to be 100% … But I think 97.5 is a good enough number,” Mr. Marcos said in a speech on May 31. “At 97%, we can say that we can feed all our countrymen with enough rice and supplies.”  

Experts say it may sound like good PR for his father’s legacy and his own, but it can’t be done overnight. It also misses the point that Masagana 99 was hobbled by a flawed credit program and went kaput in short order, they add.  

The program was launched in 1973, a year after the declaration of martial law, to address a severe rice shortage and achieve self-sufficiency in the staple. Funds were released to increase the yield of unmilled rice to 99 cavans per hectare.  

The Duterte administration revived the program in 2017, and renamed it “Masaganang Ani 200.” 

Limited land

Much has changed since the 1970s. The land area for agriculture has significantly shrunk, the population has more than twice ballooned to 110 million, and the consumption per individual has increased. 

“We have limited land, and we want to allocate the limited land for the crops that we actually grow, and are globally competitive. And that leaves little for rice,’’ Roehl Briones, a senior research fellow at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), told CoverStory.ph. 

“So I am not that optimistic that economically we can achieve a very high level of self-sufficiency. Maybe we can grow beyond 70 to 80%. We can push it to 90%, but not much more than that,’’ Briones said.

PIDS is a government think tank that does policy research.

Mr. Marcos, who also sits as agriculture secretary, has not expounded on his Masagana program, specifically on how he plans to achieve rice sufficiency in five years.  

The Philippines, one of the world’s biggest producers of rice, imports at least 15% of its supply from neighboring countries. As of May, its imports have reached 1.3 million metric tons. 

The entire population consumes about 34,000 MT a day. The threat of an El Niño-induced drought could prompt more imports in the coming months. 

Related: Kiko Pangilinan on how to empower small farmers

Area-based system

Briones said that instead of a banner program for rice, the Department of Agriculture (DA) should follow through on its announced intention to adopt an area-based commodity system.  

He explained that parts of the country have a certain agro-climatic geography. In one area, it may be suitable to grow rice and corn, while in other areas, banana, pineapple and coconut may be more appropriate. 

“This is the newer approach that the DA says it will start pursuing, and the sooner it can realize this kind of planning method, rather than the traditional approach, the better, the quicker that they can explain to the powers-that-be, like BBM (Bongbong Marcos), ‘Don’t expect traditional programs from us, we’re trying to do something new from now on’,” he said. 

In Mindanao, home to vast pineapple, banana and coconut plantations, it would be unwise to replace these crops with rice, said Briones, who taught economics at the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines. 

This would be tantamount to sacrificing Mindanao’s export industry for the sake of rice self-sufficiency, he said. 

“We need to grow crops other than rice. In fact, in these other crops we’re exporting in significant quantities, like bananas, we have the cost advantage—or, as economists call it, the comparative advantage,’’ he said. 

Pineapple and banana, as well as coconut oil and other coconut products, are the Philippines’ top agricultural exports.  

Besides, Briones said, the DA should explore the different uses of a crop and create business opportunities for farmers. 

“Rice is just the base of a rice-suitable growing area, but then, what you’re really after is that the entire thing becomes productive. It makes a lot of money for farmers. It can be heirloom rice in mountainous regions. Up to today, we’re exporting specialty rice,’’ he said, adding:

“If we can reengineer the whole supply chain for rice, toward a more modern, diverse, nutritious, sustainable system, and not be so enamored with chasing after minimal or no imports, why not?’’ 

‘Remember the lessons’

In Briones’ view, Masagana 99 was “a good program with glaring flaws,’’ hence the need to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

“Definitely, let’s not be blind to history,” he said. “Let’s remember the history, the lessons learned from the program. Even though we brand this [new] program also as ‘Masagana,’ make sure we pick out the good features—productivity enhancement, organizing farmers, strong investments in infra, etc.—but avoid reliance on subsidies, direct credit programs, and—this is nothing new—rampant corruption.’’ 

Briones said that because Masagana 99 turned into a subsidy program after the credit mechanism failed, it opened many windows for corruption. He did not go into details.

Under the program, the government granted loans to cash-strapped farmers to increase their harvest of palay per hectare. It also gave them access to high-yielding varieties, low-cost fertilizers and planting technology—key factors to achieving self-sufficiency.

But it went haywire after the government coaxed the farmers to take in more loans, which led to many defaulting on their payments and selling their farmlands, dealing a huge blow to the government’s funding.

At a Senate hearing in 2020, then Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, who was agriculture secretary from 1987 to 1989 during the first Aquino administration, said he had “cleaned up a mess” of 800 rural banks going bankrupt because of unpaid loans.

Dominguez was then disputing a statement of Sen. Imee Marcos, the President’s elder sister, that Masagana 99 was effective. 

The Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women has warned that the new Masagana program would “intensify’’ the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, and benefit only big corporations and landlords.

“Under a liberalized sector dominated by foreign monopoly, the Masagana rice program would just be another Marcosian blueprint to promote market-driven and profit-oriented agriculture, export-oriented and import-dependent [industry] for the interest of private sectors and foreign investors,’’ said Amihan secretary general Cathy Estavillo.

The current challenge

Briones said it was understandable that Mr. Marcos would think of Masagana 99 as a way to achieve rice self-sufficiency given that rice importation is “edging out’’ local production.  

But under the Rice Tariffication Law, imposing import barriers is prohibited. So instead of restricting imports, the government should make Philippine rice “competitive,’’ he said.  

However, neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand have river deltas that are many times larger than the Philippines’ biggest river basins, Briones observed. They are also “on top of their game’’ in terms of adopting new technologies, he said. 

The challenge now is for the Philippines to beat the cost of importing rice, say from Vietnam, and source rice from its own farmers, Briones said. But: “I think we are years away from achieving that.’’  

The alternative, according to Briones, is to adopt a “rationalized” program for boosting rice competitiveness and productivity by properly managing water supply, accelerating adoption of new technology, and incentivizing farmers into accepting fertilizer- and water-intensive rice varieties, among others. 

“But if you’re targeting a certain level by a certain number of years, the temptation is to go the route of subsidy. It will be costly to the government budget,’’ he said.  

Fixing the extension program for farmers is itself a challenge because this has been devolved to the local government. In some municipalities or cities, the agriculture program is well maintained, but in other areas, the mayor’s priority is building infrastructure unrelated to farming, Briones said.  

“There are many structural issues that need to be addressed, and I don’t think even the term of six years—now only five years—will be enough to bridge those gaps,’’ he said.

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