WritingsinterviewsOn the Filipino peasants’ struggle for food security

On the Filipino peasants’ struggle for food security

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Questions from ND Online School of Anakbayan-Europa
Answers by Jose Maria Sison
October 3, 2021

1. How do you define food security?

JMS: Food security means producing and providing enough food (grains, vegetables, meat, fish, oils, salt, sugar and so on) to the people and keep them alive and in good health. The lack, grave scarcity or unaffordability of food, especially the staples (like rice and corn), can be the cause of mass hunger, inflation and social unrest. Thus, food security is a nuanced expression for guaranteeing food self-sufficiency and social stability. The expression, food sovereignty, is also used to stress the nuance that a nation-state has the fundamental right to maintain its integrity, stability and independence by assuring the people with enough food.

Food security is best understood in terms of the threats to food production in the Philippines. The threats include the exploitation and oppression that feudal and semi-feudal relations impose on the peasant masses and farm workers, the absence of genuine land reform and national industrialization, the rising costs of production, bureaucratic corruption, military overspending, import liberalization and dumping of foreign agricultural surpluses, expansion of real estate development, landgrabbing by agri-corporations, expansion of mining, logging and monocrop plantations, the poisoning of the streams by chemicals used in mining and agriculture, soil erosion, more frequent and more severe typhoons, floods and drought due to climate warming and the rapid increase of population and the reserve army of labor (the unemployed).

The Philippines is endowed with plenty of fertile soil, forests and rivers and can be easily self-sufficient in food. Moreover, it can produce a large amount of agricultural surplus as a major component of capital accumulation in the classic development of industrial capitalist development. But the neoliberal policy makers ridicule food sovereignty and food self-sufficiency as autarky and in the name of “free trade” insist on subordinating Philippine agricultural policy and agriculture to the imperialist agri-corporations and banks and to the global supply chains that they control and generate in their favor and at the expense of client-states. They misinterpret food security as something that they decide and from which they can extract superprofits as they please.

2. What is your assessment of the situation of the sector considered as a country’s providers of such food as: rice, corn, and other staples, meat (pork, chicken, beef), eggs, milk, cooking oil, salt, sugar, vegetables, spices and others. Please cite recent concerns.?

JMS: We are a country that is agrarian, pre-industrial and semifeudal and still have a relatively high proportion of agricultural land (124,400 square kilometers) in relation to the current population of 111 million that allows food self-sufficiency for the people as well as the export of certain agricultural products, even as the agricultural land for food self-sufficiency has been historically subjected to decrease by the expansion of land for the production of export crops (sugar, pineapple, bananas, palm and the like) and the deleterious consequences of logging, mines and monocrop plantations in terms of spreading poisonous chemicals, soil erosion and aggravation of typhoons, floods and droughts due to global warming. These are continuing concerns.

But in recent times, especially under the plundering Duterte regime, the peasant masses that produce the food staples are subjected to the following: lack of genuine land reform, high land rent and usurious interest rates, ever rising costs of production (seeds, irrigation fees and agri-chemicals), lack of economic and technical assistance to the food producers, manipulation of prices of the food staples and other products and import liberalization of agricultural products which result in undue competition form cheaper imports. The most scandalous development in the relationship of the bureaucrats and merchants at the expense of the peasant masses and farm workers has arisen during the Duterte regime.

The National Food Authority (NFC) lowers its buying price, narrows its role to buying only for minimal buffer stocking and allows the merchants to smuggle in the staples to bring down the price of the locally produced staples. The NFC is now targeted for privatization after agreeing to the so-called rice tarriffication, which liberalizes the importation of rice. The bureaucrat-merchant combine allows the merchants to buy cheap the locally produced staples at the growing expense of the peasants from one harvest season to another.

Both bureaucrats and merchant syndicates rake in profits from both smuggling in the food staples at the same time buying dirt cheap from the peasant during the harvest season. The net result is the Philippines has become one of the world’s top rice importers, importing more than 2 million tons of rice this year and next year. The merchants also make profits with the merry go-round of smuggling out and smuggling in sugar.The deluge of millions worth of undocumented or smuggled imported vegetables, specifically from China, can be already be considered as economic sabotage.

In the case of the major export crops and crops for local manufacturing of oils and spices, production is conducted by foreign and domestic agri-corporations by providing sub-human wages to seasonal farm workers who come mainly from poor peasant families. They are organized as labor gangs under labor contractors or under “workers cooperatives”. Even the middle and rich peasants are inveigled to enter into growers agreements whereby they lose their land though the manipulated prices of inputs and products. The big agri-corporations overstate their costs of production and understate the value of the exported products in order to lower their tax liabilities and collect full extent of profits abroad.

3. What do you consider as measures of food security?

JMS: There are possible measures to ensure food security. They are the opposite of the policies and measures that have been adopted by one reactionary regime after another to the detriment of food security and the peasant masses and farm workers. There must be an authority to ensure regularity of jobs and living wages, build up stocks of staples to assure the people that they have enough nutritious and healthy food and that they are secure from malnutrition, food scarcity and famine; make up for crop failures and shortfalls within calculable scales and periods of time; to guarantee the continuous availability of the staples, satisfactory and fair incomes for the producers and stable prices of the staples; to ensure the availability of feeds for the livestock and certain agricultural products as raw materials for the food, alcohol, tobacco, drug and bio-ethanol manufacturers

4. How do you assess the accessibility of food for the Filipino people?

JMS: We still have more than enough agricultural land and a superabundance of

peasants, farm workers and fisherfolk. They can produce more than enough food staples and export crops, other agricultural products and fish catch inland and on the seacoast. Maritime fishing is now seriously threatened by China’s violation of Philippine sovereign and maritime rights in the West Philippine Sea. I have already cited the many longrunning problems that undermine and hamper food production and that can ultimately lead to much graver food scarcity and famine. There is the problem of food accessibility to the broad masses of the people because of the worsening economic crisis, the rising unemployment, the falling incomes, inflation and mass poverty.

The economic policy of the reactionary government has been contrary to genuine land reform and to the production of a growing agricultural surplus for the improvement of the lives of the peasants and farm workers and for the national industrialization of the Philippines. The big compradors, landlords and corrupt bureaucrats have long preyed upon the peasants and workers by manipulating the trading of agricultural products for domestic consumption. And the foreign agri-corporations and the big comprador-landlords stash away their profits from export crops in foreign banks and use theiraccumulated capital to import manufactures from abroad.

In recent decades, biotechnology and WTO-GATT provisions have become weaponized by the giant imperialist monopolies to further tighten their control of Philippine agriculture and food systems, yet their initiatives have been allowed or even welcomed by succeeding regimes from Aquino to Duterte and their technocrats. Genetically modified crops such as the Golden Rice and Bt corn have been touted for their supposed benefits, yet many peasant groups and progressive scientists have exposed and opposed the many adverse impacts of GM varieties on local agro-ecosystems and people’s health.

The Duterte years (2016 up to the present) have been particularly terrible for the Filipino people in terms of food security because of so many major programs and policies that have prioritized tourism, real estate development and infrastructure (which are both land-greedy) instead of food production; encouraged big corporate agribusiness that kill off or assimilate small farms; and wreaked havoc on local agriculture and related branches of food production. We only need to mention three obvious examples of this:

First, Duterte’s knee-jerk response to the spread of Covid-19 within the country from March 2020 onwards was to impose first a Luzon-wide, then a nationwide full lockdown, which it then prolonged and only very gradually loosened up in recent months. In the guise of stopping the spread of the virus, it immobilized the people’s daily routines, including much of trade and transport. It set up checkpoints everywhere, made arbitrary requirements for freight trucks to proceed, and literally strangled the flow of farm produce to a mere trickle for many months—leaving so many truckloads of cash crops rotting in the villages, warehouses and by the roadsides, bankrupting so many farmers and small traders, and jacking up most food prices in urban markets. Even now, more than a year later, farm villages and small traders are only beginning to recover some of their losses when they get hit again by new waves of strict lockdown measures. Meanwhile, urban markets are swamped with cheap imported vegetables and fruits from China and elsewhere.

Second, Duterte’s technocrats (following the same path as past regimes which supported neoliberal policies from Aquino and Ramos onwards) have been allowing the big foreign corporate farm and food interests to weaponize animal epidemics. In recent outbreaks of the avian flu and African swine fever, for example, the regime resorted to harsh over-culling and other restrictions with only minimal support for the affected poultry and hog farmers. The result is that hog and poultry prices have shot up, while the country’s poultry and livestock industry has become mortally weakened. Eventually, the aim is to destroy much of the backyard peasant-based or small-scale capitalist character of the local livestock industry and replace it with huge food imports (in certain product lines), and by big foreign-owned corporate farms which tightly control local production through contract-growing agreements (in other product lines).

And third, the Duterte regime has signed into law the Rice Tarriffication Act (R.A. 11203) in 2019, which is proving disastrous for many agricultural livelihoods because it encourages the importation of cheap rice from other countries and the pressing down of locally produced rice. Philippine Statistics Authority data show that palay farm gate prices dropped from Php 23 per kilo in September 2018 to a mere Php 15.50 in October 2019. On the ground, palay prices have further dropped to Php 10.00 or less—and these were registered even before the farmer-killing lockdowns from early 2020 onwards. At the same time, the NFA’s capacity to buy at cost from local farmers has been much weakened, NFA rice is now being sold at around Php 40 per kilo, from its former Php 27.00 per kilo.

The Duterte regime has been most abusive in widening the budgetary deficit through bureaucratic corruption, military overspending and overpriced infrastructure projects and has increased the local public debt. It has also widened the trade deficits by importing finished manufactures, especially luxury and military goods, far beyond the value of the exported agricultural and mineral products. The income of the overseas Filipino workers and the growing foreign debt have been wasted by the Duterte regime.

The demand for overseas Filipino workers and their income are now decreasing because of the global economic depression.. Duterte and his neoliberal advisers headed by his finance secretary Carlos Dominguez are utterly stupid and short-sighted. They have had the illusion that they can resort to domestic and foreign borrowing without end and without adverse consequences to the economy. When he became president in 2016, the total Philippine public debt was only Php 5.9 trillion. Now, it is already Php 11.6 trillion and is expected to rise beyond Php 13 trillion in 2022. This is a huge bubble that is already in the process of bursting to the detriment of the people.

5. Can you provide context on what is truly a “good food”? On the other hand what are nutritious or healthy food?

JMS: What I consider good food is what I enjoy eating in the proper proportions of rice, fish and/or meat, vegetables and fruit for dessert. Progressive agro-ecology networks recommend organically or naturally grown food, locally produced and available food, and produced under conditions of fair labor practices. I also agree with the professional nutritionists in the Food and Nutrition Research Institute and National Nutrition Council of the Philippines which have issued since 2012 the following Nutritional Guidelines:

1. Eat a variety of foods every day to get the nutrients needed by the body.

2. Breastfeed infants exclusively from birth up to 6 months, then give appropriate complementary foods while continuing breastfeeding for 2 years and beyond for optimum growth and development.

3. Eat more vegetables and fruits every day to get the essential vitamins, minerals and fiber for regulation of body processes.

4. Consume fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, dried beans or nuts daily for growth and repair of body tissues.

5. Consume milk, milk products and other calcium-rich foods, such as small fish and shellfish, every day for healthy bones and teeth.

6. Consume safe foods and water to prevent diarrhea and other food and water-borne diseases.

7. Use iodized salt to prevent iodine deficiency disorders.

8. Limit intake of salty, fried, fatty and sugar-rich foods to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

9. Attain normal body weight through proper diet and moderate physical activity to maintain good health and help prevent obesity.

10. Be physically active, make healthy food choices, manage stress, avoid alcoholic beverages and do not smoke to help prevent lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases.

6. As the Philippines has been heavily import oriented and export dependent, in this setup the food supply from our food sector may not be sufficient to provide for the whole population of Filipino people and always at risk. In waging the democratic revolution, what are the urgent and long term plans to ensure healthy and accessible food supply?

JMS: The Philippines is still a mainly agrarian country, with the peasant masses constituting at least 60 per cent of the population and with the agricultural land of 124,400 hectares still more than sufficient to provide food to 111 million people, raw materials for local manufacturing and export crop to earn foreign exchange. The level of technology in agricultural production is still low, especially in extensive areas where the carabaos are used as work animals and feudal relations still persist. Even in the modern plantations, there is widespread use of seasonal farm workers who bring their own hand tools. They are extremely low-paid and treated as beasts of burden.

In the past 40 years, there has been a gradual expansion in the use of small-scale machinery for certain steps in palay production: e.g. hand tractors (Kuliglig, Kubota) in lieu of carabaos; power threshers, and so on. Agrichemicals have also replaced manual weeding to some extent in the major rice-producing regions. But these machines and chemicals are imported. The most critical steps such as planting and harvesting are still labor-intensive. Even in high-value cash crops such as temperate vegetables grown on mountain slopes, or in poultry and livestock farms and aqua-farms, daily farm work is still dominantly labor-intensive, requiring mobile gangs of seasonal farm workers using the simplest farm implements. The majority of them, in a fundamental sense, are still part of the peasantry.

In the time of Marcos during the 1970s, his business crony Benedicto planned to introduce harvester combines in the sugar industry but gave up because it was far cheaper to use seasonal farm workers and he and his colleagues became afraid that the displacement of the seasonal farm workers by harvester combines was socially explosive. Even as it still has generally a low level of technology in terms of using tractors and other farm machines, irrigation systems, fertilizers and pesticides, Philippine agriculture is capable of producing enough staples for domestic consumption and a significant amount of surplus which has been appropriated by the landlords, big compradors and the foreign and domestic agri-corporations.

The main content of the people’s democratic revolution is agrarian revolution. This is ultimately taking away the land from the big landlords and compradors and distributing the land free to the peasants who proceed to develop their cooperatives from one stage to a higher one on the widening scales of the municipality, district and province. Without the exploitative exactions of the landlords and merchants, the peasant masses can raise the technological level of agricultural production, raise their standard of living and produce a growing amount of surplus for capital accumulation and industrial development.

The strategic objective of the new-democratic revolution is to enable the completion pf agrarian revolution and link this with national industrialization and basic socialization of the economy. The working class has a decisive role, through the proletarian-led state, in taking over the commanding heights of the national economy; and in ensuring that industrial development also directly benefits agricultural cooperation through mechanization, establishment of machine tractor stations and provision of consumer and various producer goods. The cooperatives are required to deliver grain quotas to the state but receive payments to raise the standard of living. Agricultural and industrial production are given the highest priority in centralized economic planning, investment and financing that mutually benefit the workers and peasants. The worker-peasant alliance is maintained and further developed from five-year economic plan in the socialist construction.

7. Is this condition available in the country? Are there any examples from other countries or communities that we can adopt in our country?

JMS: At the moment, the revolutionary movement has been capable mainly of carrying out the minimum land reform program of rent reduction, elimination of usury, raising farm wages, improving prices of products at the farm gate and raising production in agriculture and sideline occupations. In certain areas in certain periods, the guerrilla fronts have carried out projects of confiscating land from the landlords and taking it back from landgrabbers and promoting rudimentary agricultural cooperation among the peasants and among the Red fighters assigned to agricultural production for the people’s army.

Even at the stage of the strategic defensive, within and adjacent to guerrilla fronts, some small and medium-scale enterprises can already cooperate with the the people’s democratic government and peasant associations to produce good-quality food products, which could enter the wider rural and urban markets and could supply guerrilla units as well. A few examples might be processed and packaged foods and materials derived from native rice and corn varieties, coconut (e.g. Virgin Coconut Oil), muscovado,confectionaries, dried fruits and nuts, medicinal herbs and drinks, and so on. These enterprises could also be encouraged to engage as well in repair, reconditioning and repurposing of industrial and automotive machinery already available in small towns and rural areas for the use of peasant and fisherfolk associations and other producers’ cooperatives in food production and food processing.

Total victory in the people’s democratic revolution is needed to complete the agrarian revolution and develop the agricultural cooperatives as well as rural industries to advance socialism. The classic examples of agrarian revolution were those of the Soviet Union in which agricultural collectivization and mechanization were achieved under the leadership of Stalin and of China in which agricultural cooperation led to the establishment of communes and rural industries. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and a number of East European countries, agrarian revolution and agricultural cooperation and mechanization were also carried out.

8. What could you suggest as a response to the gaps in food security in the country?

JMS: We need to take the following steps as response to the gaps and vulnerabilities in food security:

1. Remove the brutal and corrupt Duterte regime from power and stop it from using public funds to import rice and other food products that we ourselves can produce and thereby raise the prices of staples and other farm products that our peasants produce.

2. Repeal the retrogressive laws enacted in recent decades that further opened the country to unrestricted food importation and weakened local agriculture and peasant livelihoods. E.g. Rice Tarriffication Law or R.A. 11203.

3. Use public funds to rebuild the buffer stocks, promote and truly develop local agriculture, give the much-needed economic assistance and subsidies that the peasants and farm workers deserve, stabilize the price of their agricultural products and make these accessible to the broad masses of the people.

4. Allow the people to get back their jobs and means of livelihood which have been taken away from them by the excessive restrictions imposed by the Duterte regime and raise the employment and incomes of the entire people so that they can buy the products of the peasants.

5. Stop the military campaigns of the reactionary armed forces which disrupt and even destroy agricultural production and the peaceful life of the peasant masses. Put to work in agricultural production the soldiers of the reactionary armed forces in their own military camps.

6. Resume the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations and accelerate the making of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER).

7. Implement the CASER provisions for agrarian reform and rural development and national industrialization and economic development.

8. Proceed to make the Comprehensive Agreement on Political and Constitutional Reforms.

9. End the armed conflict and realize the just and lasting peace.

10. Implement an independent foreign foreign policy in order to raise resources for development and building the peace.###

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