Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rice Worries

The past week or so, television viewers in Lianga watching local news programs have seen intense TV coverage of the long lines of Metro Manila residents queuing up for chances to buy low priced rice from the government's National Food Authority (NFA) in the wake of widespread public panic of an imminent rice shortage in the country. With regular commercial rice stocks selling often in excess of P30.00 per kilo, much of the urban population living within and surrounding the nation's capital is consumed by fear that NFA rice stocks may soon ran out and that they may no longer have access to affordable rice in this country where, for the impoverished especially, a plate of rice can mean the difference between survival and starvation.

That a lot of Lianga residents, as a result of these developments, are surreptitiously checking and secretly augmenting their rice stocks cannot be denied. This is inspite of the fact that there has been no perceivable rice shortage locally and a random check of local rice dealers and retailers will show that ample supplies of this most basic of food commodities are available although the prices of many local rice varieties have risen sharply. NFA rice is available in sufficient quantities and there has been no mad rush to stock up on government rice since even the poverty stricken masses here prefer to buy better quality rice if they have the extra cash.

My grandfather once said that most of the people here may be dirt poor but they do always make it a point to have good quality rice stocks st home in the belief that they may not be able to afford to eat as the rich do but a plateful of fragrant and scrumptious boiled rice can make up for the lack of delicious, delectable viands and dishes that is their common lot in life.

It helps, of course, that Lianga is a rice producing town and that it produces more that it consumes. And the fact that it is in the middle of harvest time nowadays means that there should be no basis for the fear or apprehension that a rice shortage is coming or inevitable.

But anyone here who watches the news on TV or reads the newspapers regularly knows that there is a growing concern for what may be an emerging food crises that may soon be threatening if not already adversely affecting the world. Food costs are rising in many countries as the world production of vital food crops (rice included), which has been declining for decades, struggles to keep up with growing and accelerating demand for them. Food riots brought about by rising prices and insufficient supply of many food commodities have been occurring in many parts of Asia and elsewhere.

Even local observers here are taking note of the fact that year after year, the number of hectares of land regularly producing rice is steadily declining as more and more land is set aside for industrial, residential and commercial use. High production costs and lack of government support for rice farmers especially during the planting and post-harvesting phases are major factors that have hugely negative effects on overall rice production locally.

Lianga, despite its rice production, is surprisingly no stranger to rice shortages but so far only in the shared collective memories of its not so distant yet often violent past. My grandparents used to tell me stories of hard times not so long ago when war and prolonged armed conflict would dry up rice and food stocks locally. Merchants would be forced to sell rice from hoarded supplies at gunpoint or through barred windows to prevent looting and robbery. During those times hunger and starvation was the fate of many who neither had the means or the will to fight for survival.

So when the people of Lianga turn on their TV sets and see all those queues and lines of men, women and children in Metro Manila and elsewhere in the country forming in front of the offices and warehouses of the NFA to wait for hours under the hot sun for their precious 5 kilos of grain, they do not breath a sigh of relief and blithely say,"Hey, better them than us." For they know fully well that what is happening in Manila can happen to them too. And it may happen soon.

And when it does happen to an agricultural and rice producing town like Lianga, then that is really when, as the Americans would say it, the sh_t really hits the fan (expletive deleted).

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