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The Philippines imports rice because it is an island nation

By David C. Dawe

Rice is such an integral part of history and culture in the Philippines that for many Filipinos rice imports are a source of national shame. Many reasons are typically advanced for the failure to achieve rice self-sufficiency—faulty government policy, corruption, conversion of rice land to other uses, backward rice farmers, deteriorating irrigation systems, and lack of farm credit, among others. But all countries, including several rice exporters, complain about these problems. Although some of these problems are important, they do not explain why the Philippines imports rice.

For example, losses of land to urbanization are easy to see because they occur in populated areas, but the effects are small and are more than offset by cropland expansion elsewhere. In fact, rice area harvested in the Philippines has been at record highs during the past five years, reaching 4 million hectares for the first time in history.

Some may think the Filipino farmer is simply backward and cannot produce rice efficiently. But a detailed survey of farmers in the various rice bowls of Asia found that Filipino farmers were among the leaders in reducing insecticide use, and have progressed farther in mechanizing land preparation and postharvest operations than their counterparts in any other developing Asian country except Thailand.

If these factors are not what causes the Philippines to import rice, then what is the reason? An examination of historical trading patterns among Asian countries where rice is the dominant staple food shows that countries are long-term members of one club for rice importers or, barring upheaval, another club for exporters. (India and China are excluded because wheat is the dominant staple food in large parts of these countries.) The fact that countries remain in one club or the other for long periods of time suggests that some deep force is at work. That deep force is endowments of land and water.

Exporters occupy river deltas with lots of land in general, and lots of land suitable for rice in particular. These countries are all located in mainland Southeast Asia: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. For example, Thailand has about four times the quantity of arable land per person as the Philippines. Consistent importers have less arable land per person and more varied landscapes favoring such alternatives as corn, oil palm, or coconut. These countries are all islands (Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Sri Lanka) or, in the case of Malaysia, part island and part narrow peninsula. The percentage of crop area devoted to rice tells the story. All consistent rice importers plant less than half of their crop area to rice, whereas countries that plant more than half to rice are consistent exporters (Bangladesh and Japan, despite a relatively large percentage of area planted to rice, are net importers because of their tiny area of arable land per person).

Malaysia is the Asian country most reliant on rice imports, which account for 29% of its consumption. Other countries that import rice to meet a significant portion of demand, with percentages averaged for 1996-2003, are the Philippines (12%), Sri Lanka (8%), Japan (6%), and Indonesia (5%). Strikingly, all five have consistently imported rice for at least the past century. The Philippines, for example, has imported rice almost every year since 1869. Java, the destination for most of Indonesia’s rice imports today, has been a rice importer since the 16th century. Exports from these traditional importers have been sporadic and short-lived. The fact that all of these countries are islands and have imported rice so consistently for so long, despite some being rich and some being poor, strongly suggests that government policies are not the explanation.

The history of Asian rice exporters is similarly consistent, except when war and ideological zeal intervened to complicate matters in three of them. Early in the 20th century, the countries that exported the largest percentage of their rice production were Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam — all mainland Southeast Asian countries with large river deltas. Today, Thailand dispatches 40% of its crop to world markets. Vietnam, having bounced back from more than a quarter century of upheavals, now exports a fifth of its rice production. Cambodia has struggled more than Vietnam, but now appears set to redeem its traditional role as a rice exporter. Political developments in Myanmar will clearly determine whether or not it can resume rice exports on a large scale.

All of the traditional importers have invested in irrigation systems to improve their land for rice. These countries now irrigate a much higher percentage of their rice land than do exporters, but these increasingly costly efforts have failed to eliminate the need to import, underscoring how difficult it is for humans to overcome geography. Thus, lack of investment in irrigation is not the reason the Philippines imports rice.

Although the presence or absence of river deltas is the overriding factor in explaining why some Asian countries import rice and others export it, other reasons are at work as well in the case of the Philippines. Located off the eastern edge of the Asian continent, the Philippines bears the brunt of numerous typhoons, making rice production more difficult and risky. Thailand and the Mekong and Red River deltas are much less affected by such recurring disasters. Again, geography plays a key role. In addition, the Philippines’ rice sector has high labor costs that must be reduced (without reducing wages) in order to increase productivity.

Despite such constraints, the Philippines did achieve self-sufficiency in the 1970s and even exported small quantities of rice in the early 1980s. Why? Because the Green Revolution of irrigation, improved varieties, and fertilizers was able to overcome the natural disadvantages in land endowment. But nearly all Filipino farmers have already adopted this technology package; thus, it cannot contribute to further growth. Meanwhile, population growth is still above 2% per annum, much higher than in neighboring developing countries.

Is there any way to lessen dependence on imports without further raising prices and harming poorconsumers? One possibility is reduced population growth, but this debate centers on issues larger than rice self-sufficiency. The best way to sustainably increase production is to invest in agricultural research and transportation infrastructure, thereby providing farmers with more and better options in both production and marketing. However, the fundamental factors behind Philippine rice imports—relatively small amounts of land and a lack of large river deltas—can’t be changed. In trying to achieve self-sufficiency, the Philippines is fighting a battle against nature that its exporting neighbors are spared.

(Excerpted from the book "Why Does the Philippines Import Rice? Metting the challenge of trade liberalization" edited by David C. Dawe, Piedad F. Moya and Cheryll B. Casiwan. Published by the International Rice Research Institute and the Philippine Rice Research Institute, 2006)