• Nathaniel Punongbayan Candelaria

The Philippines’ Food Security Situation in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges and Ways


Introduction


In 1996, the World Food Summit defined food security as the condition “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The goal to ensure global food security has been included in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as its successor, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to states, especially in terms of feeding their population. For instance, food supply chains have become vulnerable due to the “movement restrictions of workers, changes in demand of consumers, closure of food production facilities, restricted food trade policies, and financial pressures.” Naturally, some states have implemented isolationist policies to protect their own food supply, to the detriment of other states depending on imports not only on food supply but also on inputs needed to cultivate food. However, states forget that the resulting food insecurity due to pandemics do not recognize political borders. Due to globalization, global food trade has also increased to ensure food security. At the same time, factors affecting an individual state’s food security have become global in nature such as climate change and price volatility, to name a few. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this global problem as it negatively affected global food supply chains. Thus, it is suggested that cooperation is needed to resolve them.


At this critical juncture, food security is needed to keep the global population healthy. At the same time, given the problems on food security associated with the pandemic, there is also a need to rethink the issue of food as the pandemic has exposed longstanding food issues.


Food Security, Pandemics, and The Philippine situation


Food security is a worrisome perennial issue in the Philippines that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated.. Some factors that affect the current state of food insecurity in the Philippines are the enhanced community quarantine and its effect on food supply chains, food supply shocks in the ASEAN region, and natural calamities and infection of livestock. These factors will be examined as to how they affect food security in the Philippines, as well as the possible strategies to help address food insecurity in the Philippines.


Impact of the Quarantines on Food Supply Chains


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the lockdowns have negatively affected food supply chains as they hampered the transport of goods and the movement of people. Per the FAO report, farmers and fisherfolk found it difficult to access inputs needed for agricultural production and fisheries. The report has likewise noted the impact of lockdowns on the movement of people, as well as the closing of businesses due to the restrictions, which are essential parts of the supply chain. Eventually, the Philippine government was able to address the issue of the transportation of essential goods through the Department of Agriculture’s food pass and the Department of Trade and Industry’s cargo pass, as discussed in the FAO assessment. The FAO assessment also took notice of the funding available for farmers and other affected groups during the pandemic. Despite these initiatives, some farmer associations have described that life during lockdowns has been extremely difficult. Prices of agricultural goods have been lowered substantially, to the point of no returns as they still have to pay for loans. There are also farmers who have to throw away their produce as the demand fell, which was further exacerbated by the lack of transport services available. Some farmer groups have also reported that in order to survive, they relied heavily on their respective networks.


Rice Supply Shocks in the ASEAN Region


Apart from domestic policies, the food situation in the Philippines is also affected by the developments in the region. For instance, Vietnam has announced that it will suspend contracts on rice exports to ensure adequate supply for its population. Cambodia eventually followed suit. This has been especially disadvantageous for the Philippines as it is the largest importer of rice globally. This prompted for the country to negotiate with Myanmar to secure its rice supply; however, Myanmar has also suspended licenses for rice export. The issue was raised by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during the ASEAN online summit in April 2020, urging ASEAN member states not to restrict food and medical supplies during such a crucial period. He also emphasized the need for ASEAN to remain open for trading, as it is necessary for the survival of all member-states of the regional bloc.


Natural calamities and viral infection on livestock during the pandemic


While dealing with pandemic, the Philippines also struggles to face other realities such as natural calamities and viral infections on its livestock. One instance is the onslaught of typhoon Ulysses in the Philippines, which caused damage to Philippine agriculture at P12.8 billion ($267 million). As a result, prices of agricultural products have increased at around 275%. At the same time, the Philippines has also been affected by the African Swine Fever (ASF). Due to the ASF, the Philippines has lost a significant supply of pork products, thus making pork prices much steeper. As a response, the government implemented a prize freeze on pork and chicken to taper food prices. Such policy has been met with opposition because it did not address the real problem, which is the lack of supply of these food products.


What can be done to ensure food security?


For a country to be food-secure, it must ensure that the following pillars are in order: Since the Philippines is currently facing problems in terms of availability and accessibility of food due to high prices brought about by supply shocks due to lockdowns, natural calamities, and infestations such as the ASF, there is a need to increase supply to normalize food prices. At this point, cooperation through food trade is a good strategy, but a balance must be considered to also protect our local food producers.


In the short term, importing food products might help normalize the situation, but due care must be exercised due to valid concerns on its negative effect to local producers. If importation is considered to lower down food prices, there should be support for local food producers as well. For the agriculture sector, for instance, there is a need for the government to help farmers to lower production costs, and help them attain economies of scale. For livestock producers, the government needs to address the issue of ASF as well as support them financially in terms of transport costs, and access to finances to address the lack of pork supply. At the same time, other food sources such as fish must remain stable for the food situation not to deteriorate further. This can be done, according to the DA Secretary, if fisherfolks and their cooperatives are supported properly.


In the long run, the Philippines needs to ensure its food security by investing heavily in its agriculture sector. However, this must be done strategically. The eight paradigms to level up Philippine Agriculture is a good strategy to consider regarding Philippine food security. On the other hand, there is also a need to seriously consider alternative viewpoints to ensure food security. For instance, the idea of food sovereignty might be considered given the supply shocks that occurred during the early start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these two paradigms might appear contradictory, there are also points of convergence that might help recalibrate how food security is seen in the Philippines.


Concluding remarks


The issue of food is a perennial problem to the Philippines that has been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In this respect, the government must be strategic to address the issue of food. In this ongoing crisis, there are actions that can be done in the short term. At the same time, there are things to be considered in the long term. However, a deep assessment is clearly needed on how food security is viewed in the Philippines. The issue of food insecurity in the Philippines must be clearly examined now so as not to experience these problems again, especially if the Philippines has to face another pandemic in the future.

Nathaniel Punongbayan Candelaria is currently Teaching Associate at the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman. He is also currently pursuing his Master of Arts in Political Science degree at the same department, where he also earned his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science (cum laude) degree in 2015. He previously worked as Senior Project Assistant at the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS), and as research assistant at the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies (ISDS Philippines), and at the Foundation for Integrative and Development Studies (FIDS). His research interests are on non-traditional security studies, international relations, and religion and politics.