The Philippines has temporarily halted the conversion of agricultural lands for property development and other uses amid concern it needs to ring-fence its paddy fields to meet a growing demand for rice.
Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman told Reuters on Wednesday that he had ordered an immediate stop to the conversion of farmlands while Manila looks at beefing up approvals for the release of agricultural lands for other uses.
"There is a need for us to review our existing guidelines. We have to strike a balance between food production and development," Pangandaman said.
The Philippines, the world's largest rice importer, wants to boost domestic production of the national staple to shield itself from soaring international prices.
World rice prices have doubled this year as leading exporting nations have banned overseas sales to tame rising domestic prices. US rice futures rose 2 per cent to new all-time highs on Wednesday on fears of looming shortages and plans by the Philippines to buy more grain.
Unmilled rice production in the Philippines is expected to reach 17 million tonnes this year, from 16.24 million tonnes in 2007 but the increase in output is not enough to keep pace with rapid population growth.
Currently, up to 2 million hectares of farmland are devoted to farming rice in the Philippines but the archipelago has less arable land per capita than other big rice-producing nations and officials fear farms risk being gobbled up by property and leisure developers.
"There are areas in the Philippines that were used for ricelands and yet they were converted," said Clayton Olalia, assistant secretary of agriculture. "Golf courses have mushroomed."
Food costs, including the price of rice, have been climbing globally due to increased demand, higher fertiliser prices and the increasing diversion of water and land into other areas such as industry, property and biofuel production.
Olalia said over the past two years, the Department of Agriculture had only approved 1,600 hectares of farmland to be converted for other uses.
But land has also been converted from rice to other crops.
"We are also looking to stop the coversion of rice lands for other agricultural lands," Olalia said.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been a vocal champion of increasing biofuel production to reduce dependence on imported crude oil and the country plans to reserve 600,000 hectares of land for biofuel crops to meet blended fuel needs.
But officials of the department of agriculture say only 20,000 hectares had so far been planted with crops which will be used in fuel blends. (Reuters)
Manila halts farmland conversion amid rice crisis