Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 21 December 2011

As the holiday of holidays nears, we set aside serious discussion of economic and social problems. Instead, we focus on pleasurable things: on food that we eat.

We compare today with the general conditions of twenty or even thirty years ago.

The glad tidings and blessings of rising standard of living. Progress in our daily lives is best experienced through the consumption of the goods that we can buy.

Through the years, the variety and quality of the goods made available have improved because of rising standard of living.

The view from income class, growth, and age. The incomes of households determine the goods that they put on the table. Households experience their unique paths toward their well-being and riches which somehow determines their choice and habits with food.

Those with fast growing incomes exhibit different consumption patterns compared to those with slower income growth. Young households have little comparative experience of their own, but they derive their impressions from what their elders tell them about life  in their own times.

Food on the table. Today, there is much more food available and grown and produced locally. But variety is also provided by access to world supplies through trade. We buy foreign imported food partly from the proceeds of our exports of goods and services, including that from food.

Prices might have changed but so have incomes received. Income changes sometimes compensate for rising prices.

Basic staples and wider choice. Rice is available in a greater variety. For instance, when price controls on rice were prevalent, only few varieties were available. As prices were allowed to have some space in relation to quality or class, a wider variety of rice became available in the market. Thus, more families have greater options, depending on their income profiles. Although the country imports a lot of rice, the fact is that many types are available the whole year through from local growers and from imports.

Extreme seasonality of supply is gone. A significant development is the disappearing seasonality variations in supply and prices of some foods. Supplies throughout the year are more stable except during calamities affecting major agricultural areas.

Tomato crop. Before, tomatoes were very cheap during summer months and quite expensive during rainy months. This behavior might still be true but the wide price differences between seasons no longer exist. Tomato supplies are generally more uniform and the quality is much more sustained.

The reason for this is that different regions of the country now produce tomatoes during different times of the year so that supply imbalances are made up by regional trade. Farmers are smarter. During rainy seasons in the Luzon area, tomatoes from the south – perhaps from Mindanao and other regions – make up the deficiencies.

Mangoes the year round. The marked summer seasons for mangoes has disappeared. Nowadays, we can have mangoes the whole year through. Mangoes are also much more expensive but this is because mangoes have a thriving export market which makes mango farmers happier.

The expansion of the mango market has created a large supply of harvests at different times of the year in various regions suitable to the fruit growing that have different rainfall patterns. It took multi-year plantings over wide patches of the country to achieve this.

Wider variety. The varieties of fruits and vegetables have also broadened. For example, there are more vegetables available at a longer time period of the year. Better horticulture, improved seeds, and the introduction of new varieties have widened the choices. Supply sources from the regions have firmed up.

The examples cited can be multiplied in terms of newer varieties of fruits and vegetables that are becoming more widely available. The old rhyme about sitaw, patola, upo’t kalabasa, needs to be revised to bring in more names and types of vegetables.

Even the kangkong of old is essentially a newer crop, more cultivated in regular soil than in waterlogged gardens. Onions, celery, spices, eggplants, cucumbers, carrots, peppers etcetera are enlarging their presence in more local qualities. The Baguio lettuce is now accompanied by various types of lettuces from Tagaytay and Bukidnon. And the basic “salad” mix for those with a gusto for salads is changing in pattern too.

Handy papaya fruit. The papaya demonstrates an interesting phenomenon. Older people will remember that the papaya used to be a huge fruit. It was impossible then to buy succulent small papayas. Nowadays, the papaya comes in a much smaller handy size.

There are still large papayas in backyard gardens, but the smaller papaya has displaced the big papaya as the commercial crop. This small papaya has more value per gram of output. Its size is more manageable from the viewpoint of control of ripening. From a farm product, the smaller papaya has high productivity in terms of fruits per tree with yields that make the farmer more prosperous.

The poultry and meat revolution. We have also been witnessing a kind of poultry and meat revolution in our agriculture. The quality and quantity of livestock and meat products (especially chicken and pork) have continued to rise with the increase in the population. The Filipino is more inclined to eat meat than vegetables for his diet, and these industries have produced these needed food products.

The magic of supply depends on the market adjustment of our farmers and industries. This is in part reflected by the improvements in the corn industry, which is the main supplier of feeds for the poultry and meat industries. But the feed industry has been – for almost continuous decades – also dependent on inexpensive supply of imports of these products. It pays that the nation earns the export incomes to continually import deficiencies in feed and other input supplies for agriculture.

Fish supply: Is the tilapia overtaking bangus?” We can say the same thing about the fish available from the seas and from our fish ponds and rivers. There is much more fish farming nowadays than existed in the past. This is in part due to expanding aquaculture. Our shorelines provide limitless sources of brackish fisheries.

Before, we tended to rely on the old reliable supply of bangus, shrimps and traditional crustaceans that are grown on brackish water and fresh water ponds. The seas and the oceans have traditionally yielded for us unbounded fish supply. Changing technology in growing fish cages along shorelines makes this even more ample. This is despite the overfishing and also dynamite fishing (a bad example of poor management and practices related to our marine riches) that less productive fishermen have practiced over the years.

In fresh water fisheries, the tilapia has supplanted the bangus, the native dalag and hito. Based on price and market availability, the tilapia has surged to the top of the fish staple diet.

Modernizing agriculture and aquaculture. In general, the country has benefited from the green and brown revolution in food. Agriculture is more sophisticated where modern farms are catching up and teaching our farmers improved horticulture, applying new varieties of seeds for planting, and tending to the vagaries of markets and of rain and sun availability.

Improved productivity in farming is gradually affecting much of Philippine agriculture, although there is still much to be gained. The bounty of food comes is the result of improved farming as a whole. It will even come in better as the government pays greater attention to investments in agriculturar infrastructure, sustained technical extension work  for farmers, and improved education for our rural communities.