Christian Dasalla, Incubation Fellow at Villgro Philippines, deep dives into the state of Food Security in the Philippines.
Hunger and malnutrition have been long-standing issues in the Philippines. In fact, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported in 2020 that more than 59 million Filipinos suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity, the highest number in the entire Southeast Asian region, having inconsistent access and availability of nutritious food. In addition, the Philippines achieved a moderate rating for global hunger at 19.0 by the Global Health Index in 2020, ranking 69th out of 117 countries (Global Hunger Index, 2020). With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to gravely affect the world as we speak, food insecurity and nutrition remain to be a problem of great importance for each Filipino.
Amid recurring lockdowns and quarantine restrictions, access to safe and nutritious food has been posed as a significant issue and will continue to be one unless more effective interventions and initiatives are imposed. In order to formulate solutions for these problems, it is just as important to take a closer look at the Philippine food security challenge in each aspect and detail.
Availability of food
According to FAO, a food secure country is characterized with equal “access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food”. That said, one important facet to achieving food security is the physical availability of food and related resources.
Being a country heavily dependent on agriculture for commodities and livelihood, the challenges faced by farmers and fisherfolk nationwide create a domino effect to Filipino society, ultimately leading to adverse effects on Philippine food security. The prevalence of calamities and natural disasters is seen as one of the factors that greatly contribute to food insecurity (FAO, 2015), from dry spells and droughts to typhoons and monsoon rains, have collectively slowed down the growth rates for agriculture in the country.
Late last year, a series of typhoons, Quinta, Rolly, and Ulysses, ravaged the country, leaving countless damages including those in the agricultural sector. The Department of Agriculture (DA) estimates a loss of over P10 billion for the sector due to the impact of the 3 typhoons, leaving about 150,000 farmers affected and 275,000 hectares of land damaged (San Pedro, 2020; Cordero, 2020).
Accessibility to food
Economic accessibility to nutritious food serves as another important aspect in ensuring food security. The Philippine Statistics Authority measures this facet through subsistence incidence or the percentage of Filipino individuals below the food poverty line, having income levels below the food threshold. Described as the minimum income required for individuals to meet basic food and nutritional needs for essential physical activity, the food threshold is estimated using the national and provincial food bundles prescribed by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) and the retail prices of the ingredients to make the meals included in the bundle. The food threshold also represents 70% of the estimated poverty threshold used to measure the national and provincial poverty incidence (Mapa, 2019).
As of 2018, the estimated food threshold for a Filipino family of five is pegged at P7,528 (~$157.5) per month or roughly P247 (~$5.2) a day (Mapa, 2019). To put it into perspective, the same amount could buy a plate of fried chicken and rice at a fast-food restaurant, usually priced at around P75–90 (~$1.5–1.8), for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily for a month, feeding only 1 person without meeting the daily recommended energy and nutrient intakes (RENI).
Despite minimum wage being pegged at P316 to P537 daily, about 1 in 20 Filipinos (5.27%) are still considered food poor and do not have enough money to meet basic food & nutritional needs (Mapa, 2020). However, the proportion of the food poor population is higher among provinces in Visayas and Mindanao, particularly those far from urban areas where more than 1 in 3 constituents are food poor, such as Basilan (42%), Sulu (41.6%), and Lanao del Sur (38.3%).
Utilization of food
The third factor for achieving food security is food utilization which is described by FAO as “proper biological use of food, requiring a diet providing sufficient energy and essential nutrients, potable water, and adequate sanitation.” The lack of healthier and more nutritious options that don’t break the bank proves to be a challenge in meeting daily nutritional requirements. Cheaper unhealthy food, such as junk food and sweets, would appeal better to individuals in lower income levels than fruits and vegetables of higher prices, as they are simply looking for something to eat within their financial capacity (pang-laman-tiyan or pantawid-gutom in Filipino) rather than the nutrition in it.
In a 2021 report, UNICEF, alongside the Department of Health (DOH), National Nutrition Council (NNC), FAO, WHO, shared that failing food systems and poor diets are heavily contributing to the prevalence of the so-called triple burden of malnutrition, comprising undernutrition and stunting, overnutrition and obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies in children. That said, the lack of awareness and education on making wise and mindful food choices is evident and needs to be combated with strategic and effective information campaigns.
With the prevalence of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be said that the food security situation in the Philippines has worsened further with the severe economic challenges that the country faces. Only 2 out of 5 Filipino households were able to sustain their overall food consumption during the lockdown, and only 1 in 20 Filipino individuals had enough money to survive the first three months of lockdown (UNICEF, 2020). Given this, the risk for hunger and malnutrition, alongside its long-term effects and consequences, is still very much present, especially for those in more susceptible and precarious environments.
Risks and hindrances
According to the Philippine report on the right to food assessment by FAO, households with greater risk of suffering from hunger are those with sizes of more than 4 members (~27.1%) and those with 3 or more young dependents (~41.3%) due to the need for more funds to suffice the nutritional requirements of all members of the family.
In terms of educational attainment, higher incidences of hunger are seen in households whose heads have completed elementary education only (18%), are elementary undergraduates (23.8%), and have no educational experience whatsoever (32.5%) (Abad Santos, 2010) due to the reliance of job opportunities and professional development on level of educational attainment.
Those with formal and stable employment, whether it be in the private (12.5%) or public (5.8%), are less susceptible to hunger than those who are self-employed (19.6%). Notably, even those working in agriculture, the prime sector of food security, and mining have higher incidences of hunger (24.6% and 22.2% respectively) than those with the service sector (6.8%) (Abad Santos, 2010). With this, the underdeveloped agricultural sector can be seen as an emerging hindrance in the industry, with the lack of technical infrastructure and skills-building opportunities as primary issues being faced by farmers from reaching the highest potential of the industry.
Inflation has also had significant effects on prices of food and related resources which, in turn, affects the capacity of consumers to buy essential goods within their budget and income.
Interventions and insufficiencies
In order to combat the food security challenge and its consequences, the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) have each spearheaded their own programs for farmers and consumers alike. With their 2021 approved budget of P85.6 billion (DA Communications Group, 2020), DA, the main agency for agricultural development and food security, continues to lead projects such as the food staple sufficiency program (DA, 2012) and agricultural loans (DA Communications Group, 2020) to directly help farmers in the conduct of their work, from tilling to harvesting, as well as consumers in fulfilling their dietary and nutritional needs. Being the main agency for agrarian reform and land redistribution, DAR, on the other hand, has continued the implementation of the comprehensive agrarian reform program which aims to redistribute private and public land to beneficiary farmers and workers, with their budget of P8.8 billion (DAR, 2020).
At the height of the lockdowns, DA also launched the Rice Farmers Financial Assistance (RFFA) and Financial Subsidy for Rice Farmers (FSRF) programs with the Land Bank of the Philippines that each aimed to provide financial assistance of P5,000 to 600,000 rice farmers nationwide to aid in the fulfillment of their needs (DA-AFID, 2020), totaling to about P6 billion allocated for the assistance.
However, due to the increasing need for economic resiliency and recovery among individuals and households amid the continuous effects of the pandemic, concerned individuals and organizations have also started various initiatives to help in ensuring food security at the local level.
One of such initiatives is the community pantry movement. Starting with a small roadside cart in Maginhawa Street, Quezon City led by Ana Patricia Non, the idea of creating a pantry with various commodities and goods where people can freely get what they need and give what they can has become widespread, with hundreds of pantries open in various cities and municipalities in the country (Salcedo, 2021).
Food security, social enterprises, and innovation
Despite the numerous initiatives spearheaded to provide equitable access to food for all, it cannot be denied that there is a need for more robust and long-term solutions in addressing the food security challenge, leading to more structural and systematic changes.
We need to keep on spotlighting the conversation around food security in order to increase the awareness of the general public on food insecurity and the consequences it could cause not only to those who are food or subsistence poor but also the entirety of Philippine society. However, we should not stop at simply spreading awareness.
It is a must for us to use our knowledge, resources, and platform for the good, and that also includes making our own effort in facing the food security challenge head on. In the age of heightened dependence on technology, it is just as important for us to explore new ways and create innovative solutions in which we can be of help to the larger community, and you don’t need to be a scientist or expert in food security to start doing so.
Tackling and solving the complex food security situation that our country faces is definitely a challenge. Taking steps towards changemaking and innovating shouldn’t be that difficult, however, and it starts with the simple prompt or push to make an impact for the benefit of the broader masses in need.
About the Author: Christian Dasalla is an Incubation Fellow at Villgro Philippines. He is currently in his freshman year of undergraduate studies at Ateneo de Manila University, majoring in Management Information Systems. An advocate for tech and innovation, he’s always been curious about the links and connections of S&T and national development & transformation, fuelling his passion to serve and engage with communities and the larger Philippine society through technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org