Food security in the Philippines

The Philippines is a fast-growing country that maintains a gross domestic product (GDP) of 6.2% annually since 2010.

Fig.1 Per Capita Income (constant 2010 US$) and population (millions) 2010-2015 (adapted from WFO).

Despite the significant economic growth, Filipinos battle with hunger and malnutrition. According to a Social Weather Station (SWS) Survey, 3.4 million Filipino families experienced hunger in the 2nd quarter of 2021. 

Households are forced to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption due to inflation in food prices and unemployment. Surveys done by the World Bank showed that people around the world are running out of food due to high food prices as a consequence of disruption due to COVID-19 lockdowns and currency devaluations. Households in low-and middle-income countries spend a higher percentage of their income on food. Due to COVID-19, more people are facing acute food insecurity.

Hunger and malnutrition are prevalent among children and women. In 2011, 33.6% of children under 5 years old suffered from stunted growth. The Food Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) reported that 25% of pregnant women who have children aged below 5 years were nutritionally at risk. Consequently, almost 12% of lactating mothers are also underweight.

The country’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 2021 reaches 16.8, which ranks the country 68th out of the 116 countries with moderate hunger levels. This is based on four indicators: undernourishment, under-five mortality rate, wasting, and stunting.

Fig. 2. GHI score trend for the Philippines from 2000–2021 (adapted from Global Hunger Index). 

*Note: Data for GHI scores, child stunting, and child wasting are from 1998–2002 (2000), 2004–2008 (2006), 2010–2014 (2012), and 2016–2020 (2021). Data for undernourishment are from 2000–2002 (2000), 2005–2007 (2006), 2011–2013 (2012), and 2018–2020 (2021). Data for child mortality are from 2000, 2006, 2012, and 2019 (2021).

According to the United Nations, 59 million Filipinos have been suffering from hunger even before the pandemic. The growing population paired with the disrupted agricultural productivity due to pandemic lockdowns resulted in food shortage. The pandemic exacerbated food insecurity in the country, leaving poor households particularly farmers and other farm workers more susceptible to the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, pests, and diseases (Future Learn).

Is the Philippines food secure?

The globally accepted definition of food security is from the World Food Summit in 1996 that says, “all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food.” 

Given this definition, the Philippines is not yet food secure. The country is not even self-sufficient in rice, coffee, livestock, and poultry, which are some of the staple products on Filipino tables according to Dr. Domingo Angeles of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). In an article published by UPLB, Dr. Angeles noted that one possible reason for this is that 30% of Filipinos are poor who can not afford to buy a proper amount of nutritious food. Ten percent of which eats once a day or “isang kahig, isang tuka.”

But food security is not solely having food on the table. It is complex as it is composed of four components according to World Vision: availability (does food exist near me?), access (can I get to food easily?), utilization (will this food contribute to my health and well-being?), stability (will food be available tomorrow, next week, next month?)
Among other issues connected to food security are diseases, environmental degradation, the unpopularity of agriculture among the youth, diminishing area of agricultural lands, and climate change. Extension services, preharvest practices, and postharvest losses are also factors affecting food security. Worldbank explained that higher retail prices coupled with reduced incomes and employment also affects food security.

Food secure versus food self-sufficient

Self-sufficiency and food security are not equivalent. Food self-sufficiency is being able to meet consumption needs (particularly for staple food crops) from own production rather than by buying or importing (International Food Policy Research Institute).  “A nation can be food self-sufficient yet food insecure, and can be food-secure even if not food self-sufficient.” This is true for Singapore that has consistently ranked among the most food-secure in the world but imports 90% of its food from neighboring countries because they can not produce their own (Inquirer). 

How climate shocks affect food security?

Agriculture production is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters as a major percentage of Filipinos rely on it for employment and food. The World Food Program (WFP) conducted an analysis on the Philippines climate change and food security and found how climate change is affecting agricultural production and supply chain in the country. Key points in the study will be highlighted in this section.

Impacts on crops, livestock, and fisheries

Flood and risk mapping conducted by WFP suggest that rainfall will likely increase by 40% from 2020-2050 which will affect agriculture production zones. Climatic shocks such as floods, typhoons, and drought combined will cause serious threats to food security. Historical data shows (2000-2010) that the country lost US$219 billion from agricultural damage brought about by these natural hazards. For specific crops, key agricultural crops were studied and results showed that there were annual yield losses of up to 5.9% for maize, 4.2% for rice, and 3.0% for high-value cash crops from 1995 to 2010.

The increase in rainfall and temperature will compromise the production suitability of crops in different regions. Rice as a staple crop will be greatly affected by the increase in temperature and precipitation that will lead to prolonged flooding and will create a more humid and conducive environment for pests and diseases to develop. According to WFP, the projected damage on the rice sector will include rice sheath blight, bacterial sheath blight, and rice blasts. For corn, 17% of current growing regions (from the north to the southwest) will be considered moderately to entirely unsuitable for corn production due to rainfall for 8 months.  Fifteen percent will diminish productivity for 10 months due to high temperatures.

Livestock animals in mainland Luzon and some islands of Mindoro will suffer stunted growth, deficient good quality meat, and a decrease in reproductive capacity also due to the increase in temperature. Since the country have a limited thermoneutral zone (or area with a temperature where the adult animal can maintain a normal body temperature without using much energy), domesticated livestock and poultry animals will likely suffer from the changes in environmental temperature, relative humidity, and sunlight exposure (photoperiod) that can lead to chronic stress, specifically heat stress. Animals suffering from heat stress experience change in behavior including panting, lower feed intake, increase in water consumption. 

The country is highly susceptible to hazards in the ocean-based food systems as well as inland freshwater aquaculture. Sea-level rise (SLR), storm surges (SS), and saltwater intrusion (SWI) are among the most common climate-related shocks that will affect coastal communities. Contamination of water through synthetic fertilizer and pesticides can also affect the groundwater compromising the safety of the health of people, animals, and the environment.

The impact of climatic changes is affecting rural households in these ways:

  • in terms of food consumption in their inability to consume the food that they produce;
  • as producers due to the decreased income from productivity losses; and 
  • as market consumers due to the unavailability and higher prices of food. 

Although both rural and urban households will likely suffer from the effects of climate change, food scarcity, disrupted supply chain, and inflation will disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable populations the most. Farmers and fisherfolks

Households that suffer from climate shocks and food insecurity were forced to adapt and cope with its impacts. For instance, the impact of El niño season forced households to decrease the quality and quantity of food intake. Other studies reported that urban poor slums and squatter settlements in Manila coped with climate hazards by eating calorie-dense food and decreasing food intake. 

The World Bank suggests diversification of employment to combat unemployment and inflation brought about by natural hazards. Following the 1997-1998 El Niño, many households diversified their income by introducing new crops and engaging in activities such as sewing, carpentry, and construction.

Impacts on household nutrition

WFP Fill the Nutrition Gap 2018 reported that the average diet of rural, urban, and vulnerable populations in the country have been consuming food high in cereals, particularly rice but low in fruits and vegetables, despite its affordable price. It also highlighted that households earning a minimum wage across 17 regions can not afford a nutritious diet, even if they were to allot 70% of their income. This is correlated with childhood stunting (33%), overweight (31%), and wasting (6) prevalent in the country (2015 data). 

The total budget, nutrient knowledge of caregivers, and own-food production influence children’s nutrition. 

Children who are living in vulnerable households who rely on farming and off-farm income have adequate nutrition compared to adults which suggests preferential feeding of children. 

Lowland and coastal villages have significant differences between income, food availability, nutrition scenarios. Coastal livelihood contributes to food insecurity which is directly related to malnutrition of children. Lowland communities, on the other hand, food security is attributed to social practices including breastfeeding and complementary feeding approaches, and morbidity linked to environmental and health conditions. 

Where should we start?

The local government and agriculture stakeholders play an important role in achieving food security. Economists’ perspectives should be considered as the country combats food insecurity. Dr. Cielito Habito from Ateneo de Manila University explained the concept of food security during the Department of Agriculture’s National Food Security Summit which he explained as a combination of food availability, affordability, quality and safety, and resilience against risks.

Habito added that food security is a collaborative effort from the government, farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and general consumers. 

Former agriculture secretary Leonardo Montemayor wrote a comprehensive article explaining food security and how we can achieve it. The following are his recommendations:

  1. Appropriate infrastructure to support the backlog of over 10,000 kilometers of farm-to-market roads (FMRs). Road network maps can be provided by LGS and baranggay (villages) for these FMR projects, while the Department of Agriculture (DA) supplies geotagging support.
  2. Mechanization should encompass the food value chain. Training and capacity building of services providers to maintain machines and systematized individual farms should also be prioritized, including basic food processing of farm produce and food development. Cold chains system, powdering facilities can be added to community ports and production sites. 
  3. Support research and development initiatives that produce ground-level results. Applied research and training for scientists who specialize in agriculture. Some of the research initiatives that can be improved include, lagundi, VCO, coco water, blast-frozen fish, and biodiesel. 
  4. Consolidation of best practices information to enhance productivity and profitability of farms, including block farms, shared processing facilities, service provider groups to maintain farm machinery and operate leasing services, consolidated marketing efforts, farm planning and crop scheduling, and more.
  5. Recognize organic agriculture as an alternative. This deserves a place in the food security framework as it provides healthy produce. A niche market for organic agriculture is growing, as well as organic fertilizers, non-synthetic chemical concoctions, and natural pesticides.
  6. Connect farmers to the market. Farmers need to shorten the value chain and connect with a stable market to have a sustained income and profit. 
  7. Integrated and sustained location-specific interventions. Government should create specific and suitable solutions to address food security issues.

Glossary of terms 

Undernourishment: the share of the population that is undernourished (that is, whose caloric intake is insufficient);

Child wasting: the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (that is, who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition);

Child stunting: the share of children under the age of five who are stunted (that is, who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition); and

Child mortality: the mortality rate of children under the age of five (in part, a reflection of the fatal mix of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environments) -according to Global Hunger Index)

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Researcher at Climate Tracker

A research specialist and editor in a national government agency in the Philippines. Considers herself a polymer clay artist. Loves watching true-crime documentaries and drinking green tea with honey. Also speaks Filipino.