COVID-19 | COVID-19 and the ‘collapse’ of the Philippines’ agricultural sector: a double disaster

The enduring COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp spike in hunger among Filipinos resulting from an extended lockdown in this Southeast Asian country. This is driven in part by its problematic trade policy based largely on food imports and fluctuating global food prices. For those who also have to deal with the financial repercussions of the lockdown, increasing hunger due to poorer food availability along with increased poverty thus form a double disaster. Without the government’s immediate promotion and prioritisation of local food production and sustainable agricultural development, this could lead to even more widespread and severe hunger during and long after the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions across the world, threatening public health and safety[1], but also economic stability and food security. The lockdown, which has included mobility restrictions and physical distancing rules, has sped up job losses and has led to the shrinking of the world economy, leading to increased poverty and inequality worldwide. According to ILOstat[2], this has been linked with inflation that has altered consumer spending patterns globally. It has been noted that global food prices increased by an average of 5.5% between August 2019 and August 2020. Similar increases can be observed in all other regions.

Consequently, more people are going hungry now than ever before: this sharply reduced ability to acquire sufficient and nutritious food owing to food price fluctuations has resulted in considerable hunger and poverty globally, including in the Philippines, where an estimated 5.2 million Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger in 2020 according to the SWS National Mobile Survey.[3] The rise in food prices, which have increased by 70%, in effect ‘crushed’ especially the poorest.[4] I argue here that the country’s poor agricultural production and problematic agricultural policy, along with fluctuating global food prices, form a double disaster. To a primarily agriculture-based country like the Philippines, this double disaster of increased poverty and the greater vulnerability of the country’s food system that has resulted in even more widespread hunger in times of pandemic could be unfathomable. Unfortunately, the fact is undeniable.

Poverty, hunger, and food insecurity 

Restrictions were imposed in the Philippines shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO)’s announcement of the pandemic in March 2020, taking the form of enhanced community quarantines (ECQs)[5] or Modified ECQs (MECQs). Consequently, unemployment increased to 17.6% in April 2020[6], which led to the easing of the quarantine measures in June to prevent further financial distress. From August last year, however, as the number of COVID-19 infections rapidly increased once more, some parts of the country went back to localised MECQs imposed by local authorities.[7] The increased job losses and economic downturn increased poverty and hunger. The hunger rate increased by 4.2% from 16.7% between May and July 2020, and by 12.1% from 8.8% in December 2019.

But the country was already food insecure and facing an agriculture crisis prior to the pandemic. Besides leading to sharp increases in food prices, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of the Philippines’s agricultural sector and the need for policy reforms.

An agricultural crisis? 

As a result of these events, concerns have been raised about the resilience of agricultural production systems and the effectiveness of agricultural policies in staving off hunger. Especially in a country that is primarily agricultural, like the Philippines, reaching this extent of hunger and food insecurity must prompt questions about the country’s priorities and agriculture and trade policies, one of which is its importation policy. The country has been dependent on the importation of many food commodities (75% of rice, corn, coffee, pork, chicken (dressed), beef, onion, garlic, and peanuts are imported) for more than three decades already. While for Fermin Adriano, a scholar and policy advisor, this import dependency is mainly due to a lopsided agricultural productivity rate (1.7-1.8% in the period 2008 to 2018) and the population growth rate (1.3% for the same period)[8], the reasons for lagging agricultural production requires deeper investigation.

A recent webinar by the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC)[9] reiterates the people’s movement’s ongoing critique of the government’s lack of prioritisation of agricultural development and trade liberalisation that has resulted in the ‘collapse’ of the country’s agriculture and food system. As asserted by Ka Leony Montemayor[10] and Bong Inciong[11], two of the speakers at the webinar, the current agricultural system that is based on exploitation and exportation of agricultural products (by multinationals) and does not consider food as a community resource is a recipe for food insecurity and self-insufficiency. The poor agricultural performance and a switch to the import of foods such as rice, despite the fact that it is grown in the country, can first and foremost be considered a result of trade policies favouring importation above local distribution, says Arze Glipo[12].

Moreover, Edwin Lopez[13] reiterated that conventional farming methods (synthetic fertilisers, chemical pesticides, fossil fuel emissions from farm equipment and pump boats, the cutting of trees in plantations and the burning of crop residues) are strongly associated with climate change, which is seen to give rise to extreme weather conditions (the Philippines faces an average of 20 typhoons per year). This also influences the amount of food produces as the vulnerability of the country’s food and agricultural system increases.

In summary, since the start of trade liberalisation in the early 1990s, food importation policies and a lack of focus on developing the local agricultural sector seem to be the main culprits of lagging agricultural production and food insecurity in the country. In this light, promoting sustainable agriculture becomes more important. Sustainable agriculture characterised by food sovereignty, self-sufficiency and local food production based on a structural agricultural transformation are crucial to address this problem, as it becomes more severe during the pandemic. The failure to do so will lead to more severe hunger during and long after the pandemic has ended.


Footnotes

[1] In the Philippines, 945,745 infections and 16,048 deaths were registered as at 19 April 2021. Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/philippines/

[2] https://ilostat.ilo.org/covid-19-is-driving-up-food-prices-all-over-the-world/

[3] https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/7/21/SWS-survey-5.2-million-families-hunger.html

[4] https://www.rappler.com/business/charts-rising-prices-crush-urban-poor-manila-covid-19-pandemic

[5] “The Philippines’s ECQs is one of the most stringent measures in the region, which restricted people’s movements except for essential purposes (related to medical and health conditions, for instance) and enforced the closure of nearly all non-essential shops and stores. The modified ECQs (MECQs), had a partial and limited relaxation of business operation.” (https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/7/21/SWS-survey-5.2-million-families-hunger.html)

[6] https://www.rappler.com/business/unemployment-rate-philippines-july-2020

[7] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/philippines/brief/covid-19-impacts-on-low-income-families-in-the-philippines

[8]https://www.manilatimes.net/2020/07/30/business/agribusiness/why-is-the-philippines-a-food-importer/747772/

[9] The Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) is a local NGO formally launched in 1988, guided by a framework of human development, equity, economic rights, economic justice, democratising the economy, sustainable economy, economic growth (that is humane, equitable, sustainable), economic sovereignty and national self-reliance, and fair and beneficial global economic relations. See https://www.facebook.com/fdcphilippines

[10] Ka Leony Montemayor is the President of the Free Farmers’ Federation, a federation of agricultural tenants, owner-cultivators, agricultural labourers, fishermen, and settlers. See http://www.freefarm.org/.

[11] Bong Inciong is the President of the United Broiler Raisers’ Association, a local non-profit association of small and medium scale poultry producers. See http://ubra.com.ph/

[12] Arze Glipo is the Executive Director of the Integrated Rural Development Foundation, a Filipino NGO that promotes development programs focused on the social and economic empowerment of people from marginalised and vulnerable groups. See https://www.irdf.org.ph

[13] Edwin Lopez is one of the leaders of the FDC based in Negros province.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands, where she earned Masters in Development Studies major in Women, Gender and Development in 2010. She also earned Masters in Community Development at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Manila in 1998.  Prior to and during her post-graduate studies, she was involved in the social movement in the Philippines and abroad. Her interests include feminism, social movements, justice, human rights, agrarian question, rural development, climate change and sustainable development.

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