FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno
The authorities happily announced the other day that we have brought down our population growth rate to 2.04 percent, the lowest in nearly half a century of runaway demographics.
That brings small comfort. Still, about 5,300 new Filipinos are born each day. That is more than the number of workers we send out on economic exile on any given day.
At the present “low” growth rate, we will still double our population by 2035. That becomes a chilling piece of statistical information if we consider that our present population of about 90 million is already double the earlier estimates of the “carrying capacity” of our archipelago.
“Carrying capacity” refers to the ability of our land area to feasibly support the needs of the people dependent on it. It might be a dated concept that does not properly take into account advances in technology. It is nevertheless a useful analytical concept.
Remember that as we grew our population through the five decades when we maintained one of the highest growth rates in the world, our available arable land did not increase. It could not. The amount of arable land is a fixed factor — unless we are planning on colonizing sparsely populated regions of the world.
Sparsely populated regions of the world are pretty hard to find these days.
At our present population size, each Filipino relies on about 1,000 square meters of agricultural land to sustain himself. Because each Filipino will need to be housed, will need space for commerce and industry to be employed, we will put added pressure on available arable land.
Therefore, if we double our population size, we will have less than half of the land per capita for agricultural support down the road. There is very little technology can do to compensate for sheer land scarcity.
The amount of arable land now available to support our present population size is not enough as it is. That is the reason we are facing food scarcity reflected in food price inflation.
The urban legend that the Thais studies rice technology at Los Baños and then proceeded to outdo us in rice production is not true. Filipino farmers harvest 3.1 tons per hectare against Thailand’s 2.9 tons even if our neighbor has superior fresh water sources. But that volume comes at higher costs of production because we pump water from aquifers to irrigate our cultivated land.
We are now the biggest rice importer in the world. The reason for that is simply the population-to-arable land ratio.
Like us, Thailand did not increase her land area devoted to rice production. But she remains a net rice exporter.
The difference between Thailand and the Philippines is that our population grew faster while Thailand’s grew only negligibly. Because there are no bishops in Thailand who constantly meddle with social policy, the Thais have properly managed their population growth rate while ours remained completely unmanageable for five decades.
As the biggest rice importer in the world, we are a major cause of the present inflation in grains prices. With the volume of tradable rice stocks in the world market thinning unusually this year because of bad weather in China and infestation of the crop in Vietnam, Filipino demand for rice has pushed up rice prices not only domestically but globally.
It used to be that imported rice was much cheaper than locally produced rice. Our cost of production is pushed up by intensive power usage for irrigation, dependence on fertilizer for the higher yield varieties, poor logistical systems to cut down on grains spillage and wasteful consumption habits of a heavily subsidized commodity. Anything that is heavily subsidized tends to be used imprudently.
But because of thinning tradable stocks, the cost of imported rice has risen dramatically. Imported rice, considering transport costs, is now more expensive than domestically produced rice — even if it is of inferior quality. Thus government will now have to spend dramatically more to subsidize rice for the poor.
That will cast a large shadow of doubt on our much-vaunted fiscal management. Remember that as we are allocating more to subsidize rice, we are cutting revenues by withdrawing tariffs on steeply rising oil products to cushion the inflationary effect of fossil fuel costs on our economy.
The problem of inflated rice prices will not be solved by Joseph Estrada’s obscene political circus of distributing bags of the commodity to poor communities. That is an exercise of populist politicking at its worst, deepening the culture of dependence on dole-outs.
Sure, we can aim for rice self-sufficiency. But we must understand that this goal requires sacrificing alternative uses of the arable land we have. Those alternative uses of the land might produce greater value for the economy.
By committing our arable land to rice production, we will constrict the amount of land available for other uses. This will bring about land inflation and make housing even more inaccessible for the homeless. It will also mean less land available for industry, the means to soak up our large army of the unemployed.
There are no quick fixes to the rice predicament we find ourselves in. But one thing is sure, by allowing our population growth rate to balloon as much as it did for five decades, we set the stage for the predicament at hand.
The least the bishops can do is to help government sell cheap rice to the truly needy — and, possibly, to keep their hand off social policy from hereon.
Government, church need not clash on population policy – Lagman