OPINION: Paved with good intentions

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Sep 09 2019 05:03 PM

Just last month, the news of Italy passing into law measures to cut food waste and instead use it to feed the poor were all over the media. The news generated so much interest and admiration for Italy and the country’s lawmakers. Italian lawmakers instantly became compassionate, apart from being competent policy makers in the eyes of many.

At about the same time that this news on relaxing restrictions to donating food in Italy came a proposal to outlaw non-consensual condom removal during sex came out. Of course, social media erupted with critical comparisons of local and foreign lawmakers. Netizens could not help but point out the usual assumption, that our political leaders are simply wanting in competence and only became who they are because they have the resources, especially that they come from political families and/or they are simply popular.

In order to get to a better vantage point, however, it is imperative to have more details. In the first place, everyone, yes, not only policy makers, should be able to as much possible have a more comprehensive view of an issue. This is fundamental in policy making; a new policy might lead to more problems or effectively weaken other important policies or simply render other policies inutile.

The public, on the other hand, should understand policies as well as this would allow a more effective implementation. The policy maker and the individual are integral components in the policy-making process. If the policy maker doesn't know enough of an issue, he wouldn’t be able to come up with good measures. The individual, who is not informed on issues, on the other hand, would not be able to elect qualified policy makers. So it becomes easy to just condemn without really knowing much of the issue.

But oblivious policy makers and constituents are more of the rule than the exception. It is simply how it is without a political and governance system that makes the availability of information, and understanding information integral to the whole system, especially in policy making. The reality is, everything simply is dependent on what is available. Policies made without the right kind and amount of information are bound to be ineffective. A public that is misinformed cannot be expected to choose the right leaders and therefore could not possibly hold their leaders accountable.

The widely admired legislation in Italy recently is a good example. Without denigrating the assumed intent of feeding the hungry, the move by the lawmakers is intended mainly to address the burgeoning problem of food waste. The estimate of wasted food in Italy is 5 million tons every year and it costs the country’s business and households more than 13.4 billion dollars annually. With this price tag, it would only result to more waste if instead of putting to good use so much excess food, the government opts to make an effort to dispose of it. In other words, the law is a solomonic measure; it cuts the waste effectively and at the same feeds the hungry.

In the first place, what is considered as food waste is not necessarily spoiled food that can no longer be consumed or already way past the expiration date. In other words, much of what is considered food wastes in many parts of the world are, in fact, still safe to consume. Health and safety laws prevent many establishments from giving away food and so it just becomes a big chunk of the country’s wastes. So this measure is indeed laudable mainly because it is a win-win and only in part that the lawmakers were, in fact, well-meaning. In the first place, if they were, this action could have come a lot earlier and not when the amount of waste is already at 5 million tons.

The exact opposite can be said of the Rice Tariffication Law. Having to produce enough of the country’s staple has been probably the longest policy debate in the country’s history. No doubt it is imperative for us to still find a way to produce enough, not necessarily to be that self-sufficient, if ever not immediately, but at the least at a level that we would not be significantly subject to the ever-changing market conditions or more so with the changing climate that impacts on production. It should be understood that food is not only about sustenance but also very much about security.

It would be best to inform the public more about the issue in an objective way so that it is better understood and not used as another tool for partisanship. Just as any policy, we have to start with the question why. Of course, the obvious answer is to have the staple widely available for everyone at an affordable price. This goes without saying that the sectors involved, that is, apart from the consumers, are the farmers and traders. Both should benefit from the law, otherwise, intentionally or not, the state loses a particular sector in the process. Influence will surely be a factor in the process but should not be the only determining factor as obviously, the farmers are bound to lose.

As we have identified the stakeholders, it takes us to a broader purview leading to the issue of inflation. In fact, this is the one that actually triggered rice liberalization. The second quarter of last year saw a spike in inflation to 5.2 compared to the average of 4.3 percent. Because the staple grain accounts for 20% of the consumption of low-income households, addressing the problem of rice shortage took center stage. This means, solving it would significantly bring down inflation. For the ordinary folk, the issue of inflation therefore is also the issue of supply and demand, which means ultimately of cost.

The question we have to ask now is if the reported drop in inflation is actually reflected in lower prices of goods, in particular, rice. It goes without saying that supply should no longer be a problem as well. If the answer to these questions is no, then we have to ask again why and lead to an assessment of the law.

There are also provisions in the law that specifically mandates that collected tariffs are to be used to fund mass irrigation, warehousing and rice research, all of these apart from conditional cash transfer to support farmer families. What is now the status of these provisions, if they were implemented at all?

Still, ultimately, the most important question is: if all foregoing questions are answered in the affirmative, is it actually a solution or just another stop-gap measure? The more important question, in fact, is whether it is right to just go with importation because we are not producing enough rice. Again, we may in fact be sacrificing more important issues in the process. We may even be skirting fundamental questions in this regard. Why are we for example not producing enough considering that we are supposedly able to produce more? If we’d like to be more technical about it and agree that liberalization is really the way to go, the important question is if the solution could work in the kind of market that we have, one that obviously is filled with distortions.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.