Solving the Food Crisis

The Philippines has lost $552 million in cash outflows as foreign equity abandoned the local bourse in nine months, and such loss of foreign exchange doesn't bode well for the financial system that Bangko Sentral Gov. Eli Remolona Jr. is sworn to defend.

This development is a bad sign for the government, which has to issue short-term and medium-term bonds to generate cash to pay its monthly debt bill of P100 billion. Yet, the much-heralded Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF) also contributed to the drain of the public treasury as both Landbank and the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) paid P50-billion each as their contribution to the so-called wealth fund largely financed by debt. The billions taken from Landbank and DBP are the funds needed to boost food production, in case Landbank really lends to individual farmers or the DBP financial small- and medium-scale industries. The so-called independent Bangko Sentral also funds the MIF, which already bleeds as pencil-pushers are recruited for its "brain trust."

While they put a halo over the head of the MIF, Landbank, DBP and the rest of Marcos Jr. bureaucracy are forgetting that hungry and poor Filipinos cannot eat infrastructure projects, reminding all of us that "the gaudier the patter, the cheaper the crook." MIF is selling a pipe dream, a pie-in-the-sky as the Wobblies sang and died, massacred by the Chicago police for demanding higher pay and an eight-hour-workday, and it resurrects the myriad infrastructure projects of the Marcos Sr. regime that enriched a few but unused by millions.

The issue is the food crisis, and President is not mobilizing his best and brightest to work on the crucial efforts of developing rice varieties that germinate quickly and can be harvested in a short period. PhilRice has worked on saltwater- and drought-resistant strains while IRRI, with millions of dollars of support from the Ford Foundation, is still promoting Golden Rice. If the President were more concerned with the food crisis and the soaring prices of commodities, he should stop patronizing the F1 races of Ong Beng Seng, the Malaysian businessman and Singapore resident who is under the gun, sue for corruption in Singapore. No one and his mother-in-law believe the fantasy that he talks business and diplomacy while frequenting the Ferrari pit stop.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture (DA) biotech office is manning the store, trying mightily to propagate the gospel of biotech crops along with Dr. Rhodora Romero-Aldemita, executive director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Inc. (ISAAA) and Executive Director Dr. Glenn Gregorio of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), who says, like former Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, that the country can very well benefit as organic farming and biotech crops engage in a friendly competition to feed a hungry Philippines.

There has been a spate of good news about gene editing (GE) in the US and UK, with scientists now researching on how to make crops more efficient in managing solar radiation and produce more biomass from photosynthesis. Emma Woollacott of BBC News recently reported that Prof. Steve Long of the University of Illinois has succeeded in tweaking seeds to produce 20% more of biomass even if the process involved 100 steps and thousands of genes. Wild Bioscience, a spinout from Oxford University, has been doing work to improve the proportion of each leaf that can photosynthesize, by ramping up the expression of a gene found in wild plants. Like Long, Wild Bioscience co-founder Ross Hendron reverse engineered the naturally occurring upgrades to photosynthesis that are out there in the wild, and copy them in laboratory crops. The result of 20% increase in biomass.

Filipino plant breeders may as well work to develop quick growing rice strains rather than let politicians strain their logic by championing a rice-and-corn mix that had been promoted during martial law and dismissed quickly by the market but All-Day supermarket may repeat the scheme to feed millions surviving on pagpag cuisine. There are no silver bullets to end the food crisis, just as the tripling of corn yields also led to a tripling of water usage. So the next matter, at least for rice, is how scientists could coax the birth of rice strains that require less water, or fertilizer for that matter. Surely, UPLB scientists are working on this, just as their genius was replicated in Thailand, now the world's second largest rice producer, but whose rice paddies are slowly being choked by the lack of water from the Mekong River, which China controls.