Thursday, April 10, 2008

Buffets and Rice Crises

As a break from the day-to-day routine, the family decided to dine at Hanoi Vietnamese Restaurant last night. The eighth of the month is buffet night, and being one of the better food spots in Davao, it attracted quite a sizeable clientele. At P395 per person, it's a little pricey but well worth it considering the variety and quality of the offerings: barbecued pork, mixed vegetables, spare ribs, deep fried fish, spring rolls, and indeed, the reason why many people flock to Hanoi at this time of the month, crabs.

Now, it was with some measure of guilt and confusion that I approached the buffet table. Wasn't all this display and consumption in bad taste, considering that there's supposed to be a rice crisis in the country? That the restaurant was filled to capacity with ordinary Davao folk assuaged the guilt somewhat; quite another matter to be feasting in the midst of famine, and for the moment, at least, there's no sign of the latter. Thankfully.

Unfortunately, that does nothing for my confusion: Is there or isn't there a rice crisis?

The phrase has been bandied around for the past two weeks, and if the television and news reports are to be believed, it is one of catastrophic proportions. On a daily basis, the morning news interviews the man-on-the-street who never fails to bewail the steadily rising price of the Filipino staple, rice. Even the Inquirer web site now has a special section dedicated to The Rice Problem.

The government says that there is no rice crisis but the way it's overreacting makes one think that there is one. Thus far, government has threatened to take over food warehouses, jail hoarders for life, and appointed the Catholic church to manage distribution centers. The "rice crisis" comes at a most convenient time when the administration can demonstrate its proactiveness and divert attention from its unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) misdeeds.

Maybe we're not using the correct terminology. A crisis is a point of traumatic decision, a time of testing, an emergency. While we are going through a difficult period, we are not quite at that point yet. A news report on Haiti's own food crisis should provide some perspective, from the International Herald Tribune:

U.N. peacekeepers used rubber bullets and tear gas to chase away hungry Haitians who stormed the presidential palace Tuesday demanding the resignation of President Rene Preval. The riots over soaring food prices turned into looting as terrified residents huddled inside.

After dark, the looting spread. People broke into stores and factories on a road to the airport, witnesses said, amid blackouts reported from Port-au-Prince's center up through its densely populated hills. Frightened residents barricaded themselves behind locked doors.

Now that is a crisis. In comparison, we're just bellyaching.

Which is not to say that there isn't a problem. There is. If rice prices continue to go up unchecked, devolution to a Haitian scenario is a possibility. So why are food prices going up? In the main, it's another effect of turbulence in the global economy. But there are other factors as well: our transport is costly and inefficient, trader speculation, theft, graft and corruption, conversion of farmland into commercial and residential areas, and preference for biofuel instead of edible crops.

The last two factors deserve more consideration. Lest we forget, food is not a commodity that can be stored indefinitely like gold or oil; while you can stock up on food, the ultimate determinant to its supply is the means of production. If you reduce those, you also reduce your future food supply. However, over time, food, a basic requirement for human survival, has become increasingly dissociated and insulated, and ultimately overshadowed, by high-finance economics, one that values commerce and industry over agriculture.

So there they are, the morbid thoughts that occupy a corner of my mind while waiting at the buffet line. Should I feel guilty? Perhaps a little. It tempers the appetite a bit that others should go hungry while I have my fill. But then again: the ultimate sin against food is waste, and food is not just for survival but also for celebration. In the midst of all this worry and sadness, it's only right to grasp for some happiness now and then.

I'll eat while I can.