Nuffield Blog #4: The Phillipines, will we have Nuff’ food?

We swapped Singapores’ sweaty plastic corn for The Phillipines, where the corn was a week old, but still sweaty.

I was introduced to the concept of a ‘wet market’ by Clare Bagshaw, in her excellent novel “A China Moment”. Wet markets are your original feudal, agricultural market system where for centuries, if you had surplus milk, meat, vegetables etc after feeding the family, you would hitch your horse or bicycle, throw the produce on the back (wrapped in wet hessian) and travel pre-dawn from your farm to the local village centre.

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Traditionally, the farmers would sell their wares at dawn to customers looking for food for the day (noting no refrigeration or electricity in many homes until quite recently).

Pork strung up at Los Banos Wet Market

Pork strung up at Los Banos Wet Market

So it was, at 6am at a cool 35 degrees and near 100 humidity, 9 scholars bundled into the mini-bus to head to the Los Banos wet market. Dr. James Quilty was our host, and expertly guided us past meat vendors cleavering away at meat not yet set, glorious fruit and vege and stalls of grains, pulses, rice and other starches. The five senses were ignited with a bang, with a nearby tuk tuk backfiring as we headed into halls of meat and fish displayed on football size ice bricks. The pictures are the best way to give you a glimpse of the market in its raw form.

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Dr Quilty, a terrific Australian who arrived in The Phillipines to do his post-doctorate studies on rice (having spent time near Dubbo on Cotton for his PHD), was a consummate host. He had clearly fell in love with the place, having stayed nearly 4 years longer, now with 2 children, than his intended 3 years with his lovely Australian wife. Now the manager of IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute), it was interesting to hear the Quility’s talk about the Filipino health system being far better than his experience of the Australian health care system (caveat being you needed to be an expat or wealthy to access the good Filipino health system).

We read in the local newspaper the Prime Minister was running a quasi dictatorship through spurious drug supply claims against outspoken Senators who were placed on house arrest. After we left, a police officer on a motorbike was shot at point blank range, during his daily traffic management. Southern parts of the islands were involved in daily air raids whilst we walked through rice paddies (mum… they were 1200km away). After we left, martial law was declared for some parts of the islands. We read about wealthy Filipino families (some of which were previous Prime Ministers), who bribe the local police to ‘clear the way’ of choked traffic jams of Manila or who transport themselves around by helicopter.

We toured Corregidor Island, one of the important historic sites in the Philippines. A brief summary of the history of the Philippines: came under Spanish sovereignty in 1570, and then 328 years later in 1898, as the spoils to the victor of the Spanish-American War, the Americans added the Philippines to its colonial reach. Corregidor Island became the military reservation, complete with 4000 solider barracks, 2000 officer barracks, convalescent hospital, military stores and corridors in the Malinta tunnel. The yanks spent USD$150 Million in 1902 in concrete, mess halls etc.. (to put that amount of  USD into perspective, that amount is USD$4.054 Billion dollars in 2016 taking into account inflation).

I mention the role of the US and Japan in the Phillipines as the legacies from these battles are an intrinsic part of current day Filipino business culture. Tales of crying babies being thrown into the air onto the bayonets of Japanese soldiers, and the graphic art work depicting the rape of women and slaughter of millions of Filipinos, are a sobering reminder of war.

Remains of a 4000 soldier barracks, Corregidor Island, the Philippines

Remains of a 4000 soldier barracks, Corregidor Island, the Philippines

IRRI was established in 1960 through joint donations from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the government of the Republic of the Philippines. Significant funds for infrastructure and buildings were also contributed by the Japanese government (perhaps an acknowledgement of the brutality during the war?) Assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Filipino and international governments and universities enable this massive research facility to continue.

IMG_7749Employing 1,200 Filipino employees, as well as 1,000 contract farm workers, IRRI is now at a cross roads. Local people do not want to undertake the manual, intensive labour of planting and harvesting rice and other research crops in 35 degree temps and near 90% humidity. Parents actively dissuade their children from choosing agriculture as a career option, considering it peasant work.

IMG_1845Combined with outdated 1960’s rice field infrastructure now incompatible with modern mechanisation (some fields being 20m x 20m, complete with piping to flood and remove irrigation), the cost to upgrade the research facility to the 21st century is a huge issue, especially given this is the crop that can and does feed the world during food shortages.

(I recommend reading about the correlation between food shortages and military escalation, and the role that international aid plays in securing food supply, and decreasing armed conflict. I wish I had the gumption to supply these articles to the Facebook warriors who complain about wealthy Australia providing aid to people in dire circumstances.)

We were given the quite extraordinary chance to become rice farmers for the day! From ground preparations using the water buffalo lovingly named “Gertrude”, to a paddle style plough, to fully mechanical rotary hoe – it was simply bewildering the difference in the work required to prepare the ground.

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Next stop was to level off the prepared ground (similar to a harrow style process to generate a fine seed bed). Then we used a bamboo guiding device to ‘draw’ lines 20cm apart in a chequered pattern in the mud – which we then hand planted one rice plant in every square. It was backbreaking.

IMG_7748 We then had a go on the new mechanical planter – wow! I have a new level of respect for our air-conditioned John Deere cabs with GPS guided precision planting systems…

IMG_1847On a lighter note, our youngest scholar in our group, Dutchman Rick, a strapping young man in his prime years, took advantage of the situation to obtain some new Tinder profile pictures. He is the little brother of our group, and his boundless energy and cheerful disposition are cherished.

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Close to IRRI, is the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System. Significant statistics about this facility can be found in the pictures included here. The facility spends nearly $10M in electricity costs to maintain the integrity of the seed storage facilities!!

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Two of the functions of facilities various roles are to:
1) ensure there is seed stock available to re-seed rice crop populations in the event of natural disaster, global food crisis due to pest infestation or some other large scale global pandemic crisis; and
2)assist plant scientists in their breeding programs to develop rice varieties which can better tolerate drought conditions…such as work undertaken by Australia’s CSIRO to attempt to create a C3 crop into a C4 crop (through manipulation of the germ plasm). We saw a plant research station in Beijing using the IRRI rice seed stock.

IMG_7593There is so much more that can be said about our time in the Phillipines, including the tale of an extraordinary young entrepreneur (who I will include in my formal Nuffield Report, as an example of financial literacy converting ordinary to extraordinary).

So many possibilities for serious potential, but such adversity in realising this potential.

At the time of writing this blog, the Dept of Ag, 10 story building in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil was burning after a 35,000 person strong rally calling for the resignation of corrupt politicians.

Whilst the Phillipines hasn’t had a Prime Minister choppered out after an internal uprising for a few years now, I’d say agricultural advancements – and food security will follow only as political systems deal with corruption.

My parting image of the tale of two economies in The Phillipines was the image of small shanty style housing about 50 metres from the international runway our plane departed from….

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In my next blog, we enter the financial gateway into China, Hong Kong. Nuffield Blog #5: Nuffin” like the rule of law to ease worries

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