In recent days, a little debate was played up in the papers between the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the National Food Authority (NFA) on whether it is worthwhile for the Philippines to pursue self-sufficiency in rice production. It is quite a surprise that IRRI, the lead organization in rice research and technology, appears to be throwing in the towel, as it were. It's arguing that given that it is too expensive for the Philippines to plant and grow rice on its own, it might be better off importing rice from its neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam where rice is produced more efficiently and with a lot less expense.I have not been able to follow the conclusion of the debate. I, however, have been giving the proposition a lot of thought recently knowing that it is one of the side debates in this big globalization issue that has gotten this country divided.
Coming from a trip from Baguio City, I noticed that vast tracks of land in the central plains of Luzon that used to be planted with rice have started to disappear. In their place instead where Jollibee, 7-11 and Mcdonald's and other stores. This appears to be a clear indication that those folks who owned those ricelands near the highway have found it more profitable to put up the commercial shops than to maintain their farms. I guess it supports the IRRI argument somehow.
But what has gotten me into thinking is the realization that the Filipino culture is deeply rooted in farming. If we were to give up farming, then our culture will also be uprooted from the land. We are going to give up our nation's romance with the soil.
Our nation's romance with the soil has been wrought with happiness and pain. The experience has been inscribed in our poetry, songs, images, myths and stories. Yet, this early I am wondering how my kids could relate to the song "Planting Rice". My grandparents were all farmers but my parents and I have chosen the city life. My grandmother used to sing that song to me. During dinner time, when she finds that I have not cleaned up my plate, she would often say that I should eat every grain of rice on my plate because in the farm she would painstakingly pick each grain that fell from the sack and put it back with the rest. I guess, succeeding generations of my family will become less and less familiar with the song and with these words of my grandmother as members of my family become more and more detached from the soil as shown by the fact no one among us have been minding the farm. "Planting Rice", Jose Rizal's homage to the Filipino farmer, would be then just a play of words to my kids to the kids of their generation.
It's also the stories. The literature of NVM Gonzalez, who spent a lifetime writing the stories of the kaingin farmers of Mindoro, would be harder to comprehend for the new generation of readers who would not have the amazing experience of planting and growing their own food.
(Image taken from http://www.gbtate.com/auctionsales.html I believe it is now part of the public domain, although the painting remains the property of its current owner.)
And what about Amorsolo's paintings on the life in the farm? This wealth of images from our past remain valuable as they are for so long as our people can relate them to their experience. Indeed, the globalization of agriculture is not just an economic issue but also and more importantly a cultural issue. The side bar to the argument is whether we are prepared to shed our agriculural heritage -- generations of songs, images and letters -- and break from the past for the promises of the green bucks.
The next question is what are we going to be if we are not going to be farmers anymore? Our grandparents who lived through the horror of World War II decided they were sticking it out with the soil. War and famine they fought with the backbreaking work of planting and growing their own food. The generation that succeeded them have tried out the city life even going international -- doctors, nurses, construction workers, seafarers, domestic helpers, and entertainers. They are making big money, but their families are paying the price for separation. Now that the few who have decided to remain as farmers are being egged by global economics to give it up and be something else the question should not be ignored: what are we going to be if we are not going to be farmers anymore?
A few months back, CNN had a feature about the hunger in Ethiopia. They had this reporter live with the villages of Ethiopia for nine weeks and had it documented with a crew of cameramen and lightsmen. It was a little mean because while the members of the crew were allowed to bring their own food supplies, the reporter had to eat what the villagers eat. And when they had nothing to eat, the reporter also didn't eat. Thus, the documentary captured the angst and pain of hunger as reported by somebody living through the experience. What caught my attention is the fact that Ethiopia, or at least the villages that were subject of the report, did not seem to know that it was possible for them to plant and grow their own food and not to rely on aid. It didn't seem to occur to them, that the wild cabbage that they hunted could be planted and harvested with the passing of the season and that chickens could be raised from the backyard and be their food. The idea of agriculture as a way of life is simply not there.
And this brings me to my last point why I hesitate to buy IRRI's proposition of global economics: If we break away from agriculture, we may also be taking away the ability and disposition of our people to plant and grow their own food. Sure, we can probably buy food from our neighbors who may be able to produce them abundantly for many years. But how sure are we that the food they make is not going to run out one day. How sure are we that there will always be food to buy? The harder part is knowing that the moment we break away from our agricultural past, it would take years for our people to go back, if at all. Just look at Ethiopia and behold a nation which doesn't know how and does not want to feed itself. The very moment food supplying nations refuse or fail to sell us food, Ethiopia can happen to us.
In 2003, our farmers have produced 94% of our food requirements. This year, the number would probably hit 100%. But the folks in IRRI are not impressed. It's cheaper to buy rice than to plant it. The collective consciousness of the decisions makers of this world appear to be taking the road to globalization. The magnificense and beauty of a world without borders, a world where countries become increasingly dependent on each other, cannot be ignored.
(Image taken from http://members.surfeu.fi/filippiinitseura/kulttuuri.html. Again, copyright on this image I believe has expired.)
But are we really going to give up our romance with the soil? The issue of globalization is not only about economics, but also about culture, identity and national security. Surely, questions like this deserve a lot of thought and prayer.