The Food Security Crisis in the Philippines

The most telling sign of hunger within the village so far is the daily ritual of scavengers taking to parks and empty lots in search of mangoes…. recently, these groups now include members armed with bamboo sticks.

As governments across the world move towards using lockdowns as a method of enforcing social distancing in attempts to contain COVID-19, food security has become an increasingly overlooked aspect of this strategy. In metro Manila, the region referred to as the National Capital Region (NCR), a lack of planning and efficient logistical support has manufactured a looming food security crisis. A poorly executed lockdown across Luzon and the NCR has directly resulted in critical failures along every step of the food supply chain from field to table.

Two dynamics explain the mounting food security crisis in Manila. It’s difficult to know which is causing food shortages at any given place and time because they interact. The first dynamic are the short-term shortages seen across the globe: panic buying clearing retails shelves that are resupplied the next day. Like so many other places in the world, there was an abrupt surge of panicked consumers flooding into my neighborhood’s grocery stories, bakeries, and wet markets when the ManiIa lockdown was announced. 

I stood in line for two hours alongside hundreds of neighbors that night because our groceries were overwhelmed with people trying to stock enough food supplies to last at least a few days. Those who could afford to stockpile and hoard created temporary shortages with a prolonged cascading effect. Legitimate fears of empty store shelves leads citizens to stockpile. When people see empty shelves they fear more empty shelves tomorrow, thus driving even more hoarding and stockpiling that continues a cycle of emptying store shelves. 

For developing countries like the Philippines with weak logistics infrastructure, a second dynamic amplifies the impact of these short-term ‘panic buying’ shortages. Food security in a metropolitan area relies on a complex web of logistics that connect farms to post-harvest processing facilities supplying the wholesale distribution centers that sell to retailers. Layered checkpoints across Luzon and the NCR – often manned by a mixture of military and police – with inconsistent rules are creating a cascade of logistical choke points for food transport across that complex web. While stickers and randomly prescribed markings helped designate food transports, recognition of these cargo vehicles as essential goods varied from city to city and barangay to barangay [ed: barangays are the smallest administrative unit in the Philippines, numbering almost 900 in NCR]. 

The supply chain for rice

The result is that wholesalers are finding it difficult to resupply retailers regardless of their warehouse inventories. Unfortunately, there are reasons to worry about wholesaler food supplies too. The stoppages in the system have translated to immediate outages in dependent villages within the NCR. Chokepoints within the NCR have also created situations where goods from the ports are at a standstill rather than being distributed. With many poor barangays reliant on canned sardines for handouts to those in need, these backlogs at Manila’s ports leave essential goods on docks while supplies accessible to barangay and city officials end up rationed. Even with Zamboanga’s sardine canneries operating below capacity due to shortage of workers, the NCR is further limited by layered checkpoints and officials not utilizing the existing transport system in a far less restricted manner.

Temporary food supply shocks are now becoming sustained shortages due to the absence of streamlined logistical support. Any further disruptions, like those created by unnecessary check points, further deepen the impact of shortages and in turn create more incentive for panic buying. The longer the system remains congested or in deadlock the worse the cycle becomes until collapse is inevitable. Choke points in the Philippines system have caused farmers to dump consumable produce as regular outlets for their crops have essentially vanished due to restrictions on movement. We saw this with carrots and cabbages from the Cordillera region. 

We remain behind layered checkpoints in our neighborhood with soldiers at the main entrances and police behind a second checkpoint less than 50 yards inside the village gates. Side streets to the other phases of the village are also blocked by yet more checkpoints. The movement of food into the village has been so slowed that suppliers are incentivized to reduce the quantity of food shipped here. The current situation is one where demand for food remains the same but village merchants are struggling to resupply their inventories quickly. Restrictions on movement make the situation even worse by preventing us from buying food in better supplied districts.

The impact of supply chain chokeholds first appeared seven days into the lockdown at the “dirty market” (a street market popular with poorer residents of the village). Fresh produce and eggs disappeared in quick succession. Meat vendors in the market were the next to show signs of supply line stress. All but one closed and the lone survivor has opened only a few times in the second week of lockdown. Pandesal shops and bakeries soon followed as flour deliveries became less frequent and in smaller loads. Our village had at least half a dozen bakeries and twice as many pandesal vendors before the lockdown now had only one of each two weeks later. Neither is likely to stay open much longer.

The most telling sign of hunger within the village so far is the daily ritual of scavengers taking to parks and empty lots in search of mangoes, malunggay and other edibles. The street kids who collected mangoes at the start of every summer have been replaced by their parents and lookouts to warn when police are coming to chase them away again. Recently, these groups now include members armed with bamboo sticks. They have yet to clash with police, but are more vocal about the need to defend their positions in expectation that police will soon use more force to disperse them. Women and children now come out at dusk to collect the malunggay that shows up the next morning at the wet market. There are days when only scavenged food goods are available at the smaller stalls in the market.

The barangay has begun delivering bags of rice and canned sardines, but their scale is so far insufficient to maintain order or stave off hunger. The Manila NCR entered this crisis with a higher rate of hunger than most of the rest of Luzon and is projected to have the rate of involuntary hunger nearly triple soon. The NCR is manufacturing a prolonged food security crisis among its poorest citizens whose children are already suffering high malnutrition-related mortality rates and stunting. The cost of ‘bending the curve’ with a hard lockdown is most severe among already impoverished communities ordered to coldly embrace hunger and lasting damage.

Amartya Sen’s Nobel Prize-winning work on the political economy of hunger frames food security as a question of ‘entitlement.’ In short, entitlements are the different places someone can reliably secure life-sustaining commodities like food. The market is the primary entitlement for food in most of the world for the vast majority of people, dynamically supplying communities with different quality and prices. Market-based entitlement allows anyone who can pay retail price for food can acquire it. However, vulnerable people must look elsewhere for entitlements in times of shortages and price shocks. Those priced out of the market must turn to the government, charity, civil society, religious organizations, families, workplaces, or neighbors to survive the crisis. 

Despite many withering (and valid) critiques in academia, market-based entitlement has proven far more resilient than centralized food entitlement systems. Every famine in the past century has been the result of excessive state control over food production and delivery. The food security policy in the Philippines for several decades has relied on subsidizing rice imports to provide cheap rice alternatives within a system that overwhelmingly relies on market-based entitlements. 

The Philippines is a leading indicator warning that this system is beginning to crack under the stress of this crisis. Food security emergencies in recent decades came in the form of either global price shocks due to regional production problems like drought or regional supply problems like armed conflict. Governments and international organizations could mitigate those earlier challenges by finding ways to increase supplies, lower market costs, or ensure vulnerable populations had sufficient money to purchase food on the market. 

What is playing out in the Philippines foreshadows what we will likely see across the Global South: the only weapons governments have to defend against the pandemic are crippling the entire food supply chain. Worse, this is happening at both a global and national level. Liberalized trade policies that incentivize comparative advantage work when free trade moves surpluses where they’re needed, but fail when they either can’t be transported or surpluses are no longer for sale on the international market. In practice this would mean the Philippines is stuck with a surplus of coconuts but a shortage of rice, an excess of palm oil in Indonesia, and flowers with no international buyers in Kenya.

It is vital for governments that rely on the private sector to streamline logistics between areas of production, collection, and consumption in times of crisis. The Philippine private sector food distribution system, already plagued by inefficiencies before this crisis, is beginning to collapse. Inconsistent travel restrictions – imposed by various levels of government – have complicated food distribution at a time when ensuring food security was critical to the long-term success of Community Quarantine. 

The only way to prevent mass hunger is for the Philippine government to either take direct responsibility for food distribution and entitlement or work closely with the private sector to maintain the system that existed before the crisis. Both the private sector and government must also prepare for an extremely dangerous scenario in which other countries restrict food exports to ensure their own self-sufficiency during this crisis.

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