How climate change threatens our food security

Fritzie Rodriguez

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As the world becomes warmer in the coming years, Philippine agriculture will face greater challenges

LOSS. Agricultural workers lose crops and income due to extreme weather brought about by climate change. Photo by Jay Directo/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Ely Vargas, assistant provincial agriculturist from Oriental Mindoro, said that farmers like him can lose up to more than P50,000/year to lost productivity due to extreme weather events.

This is based on his projected loss of 60 sacks of rice/year, with each sack weighing 50 kg and costing around P17 per kilo.

Farmers are also burdened with debts as high as P40,000/hectare – spent on crude oil, equipment, and supplies, Vargas estimated.

“In the Philippines, rice is grown on small family-based farms with an average size varying from less than 0.5 to 4 ha,” according to a study from the National Chung Hsing University. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) observed the same, noting that the average landholding of Filipino farmers is 3 hectares.

Based on the estimate, farmers can lose as much as P120,000 on debts alone.

“’Pag bumaba produksyon, apektado food supply at economic viability ng pamilya ng magsasaka, kaya ‘di talaga siya makakaalis sa utang,” Vargas lamented. (When production dips, food supply is affected, as well as the economic viability of the family and the farmer. This is why he is unable to free himself from debt.)

Vargas is just one of the many Filipino agricultural workers whose livelihoods are affected by extreme weather – a global phenomenon linked to climate change.

Another layer to these problems is that most Filipino farmers do not own their land.

“The country gravely needs a National Land Use Policy to ensure that food security is not threatened, especially with the advent of climate change,” Climate Change Commissioner Yeb Saño said.

“Crop losses and lower livestock and poultry production are likely to result from excess heat and drought in some places, and oversaturation of soil and physical damage from increased rainfall in others,” according to a 2011 report of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

“The Philippines, being an archipelago and exposed to and sensitive to these changes will face tremendous pressure in ensuring there is enough food and water for all,” Saño warned.

ADB explained that “one of the direct effects of climate change on food security is the further reduction of already declining agricultural output per capita.” (READ: Why is PH agriculture important?)

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said that the Philippines has gone from being a net exporter to a net importer of agricultural products and food items.

This means that the shortages experienced by agricultural workers have wider implications.

FAO clarified that climate change affects not only food production, but all 4 dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability. (READ: How food insecurity threatens us)


The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) observed that between 1951-2010, the Philippines has had a temperature increase of 0.65C.

“There are statistically significant increasing number of hot days, but decreasing number of cool nights,” DOST observed.

Farmers can no longer depend on rainfall for irrigation, they have to pump groundwater onto the field (5,000 L of water/kg of rice) and they need diesel to operate the pumps (8L diesel/hour per paddy field, 2-4 hours/day), FAO explained.

All these cost money.

As of 2012, almost half of agricultural lands in the Philippines are still unirrigated, based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). 

2012 (in hectares) Estimated irrigable area Total irrigated area
3.1 million ha 1.6 million ha

Source: CountrySTAT Philippines 

The Commission on Audit (COA) criticized the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) for only covering half of its targets in 2012.

That year, NIA received a P24.5 billion budget – almost half of the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) total budget of P52.9 billion.

Social Watch Philippines (SWP), in its 2014 Alternative Budget report, criticized NIA for its “very low performance despite its high budget allotment and frontloading of investments since 2011-2013.”

“Irrigation is an income improving measure, especially for water-deprived and rain-dependent areas, as it gives farmers an opportunity to plant during the dry season and have the chance to double their incomes in a year,” SWP added.

Irrigation has had little improvement in the past decades; in 1990, the total irrigated area was 1.5 million ha, according to a report from the University of the Philippines Los Baños. The report cited the following problems in the country’s irrigation system, most of which are still prevalent today:

  • Design errors
  • Low construction standards
  • Poor operation, maintenance, efficiency
  • Lack of coordination among concerned government agencies
  • Inadequate agricultural support
  • Farmers’ lack of access to institutionalized credit, price incentives

DOST warned that temperature and rainfall changes also affect the incidence of pests among plants and animals.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that “Southeast Asia is expected to be seriously affected by the adverse impacts of climate change” since most economies rely on agriculture.

The share of agriculture in the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has decreased over the years.

Share of agriculture in GDP 1946 1970 1990 2012
29.7% 19.9% 15.4% 11.1%

Source: NSCB

2012 Share of agriculture in GDP 
Vietnam 22%
Indonesia 14.7%
Philippines 12.8%
Thailand 12.4%
Malaysia 11.9%

Source: World Bank

Although crop production grew in 2013, increase is still minimal at 0.09%. As the world becomes warmer in the coming years, Philippine agriculture will face greater challenges.


“Water stress,” both in quality and quantity, results from decreased rainfall in certain parts of the country, DOST said. This causes problems not only in agriculture, but also in health and energy production (i.e., dams).

Meanwhile, other areas experience the opposite and endure intensified tropical cyclones – threatening agriculture, infrastructure, and human settlements.

Such calamities can worsen food insecurity among families. It is also important to note that some of the country’s top agricultural areas are found in vulnerable regions.

It is thus important to strengthen disaster preparedness and response, both at the national and local levels.

The ADB noted that sea levels have increased by 1-3mm/year. Warmer ocean temperature threatens aquatic life, hence the livelihoods of fisher folks. Coastal communities are likewise put at more risk. 

More problems 

FAO enumerated 3 factors that make a country more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change:

  • Exposure to hazards
  • Reliance on climate-sensitive activities
  • Low adaptive capacity

The Philippines, most especially farmers and fisher folks, seems to fit the category. Without proper intervention, agricultural yields may decrease, discouraging more people from getting into agricultural jobs. This, in turn, can threaten the country’s food supply.

Agriculture’s share of employment 2000 2010
33.7% 31.2%

 Source: NSO

2009 Employment in Agriculture
Thailand 41.5%
Indonesia 39.7%
Philippines 35.2%
Malaysia 13.5%

Source: World Bank

“Insufficient food supply could further lead to more malnutrition, higher poverty levels, and possibly, heightened social unrest and conflict in certain areas in the country, and even among the indigenous tribes,” DOST added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also emphasized that climate change can worsen air and water pollution – bearing impacts on health.

“Climate change is global, but its impact is personal,” FAO said. 

What to do?

Agriculture, forestry, and land conversion cause one-third of the global GHG emissions. “However, they can also contribute to climate change mitigation through reducing greenhouse gas emissions by changing agricultural practices,” FAO explained.

Vargas advised farmers to be more aware and open to adapting new practices such as organic farming and using climate-resilient varities. They must learn to let go of kangaroo logging, dayami burning, illegal charcoal making, among other wasteful and destructive practices.

He asked the government to improve the national irrigation system to lessen the financial burdens of farmers. He also said farmers should be empowered to enable them to provide their own production needs.

“‘Pag naging dependent ang magsasaka sa traders o kapitalista, ang magiging papel nila ay laborer o producer na lang. Sila ang naghihirap pero ang ang nakikinabang traders,” Vargas said. (If farmers become dependent on traders or capitalists, they will become mere laborers or producers. They will be the ones who will work hard, while the traders benefit.)

Republic Act 9729 or the Climate Change Act of 2009 “mainstreams” climate change in policy formulation. The Department of Agriculture integrates this in its programs to protect and optimize agricultural and fishery production. 

“As an example, all irrigation canals are now being constructed with surface-lining to prevent further water wastage, as climate change impacts point to a water-constrained future for the Philippines,” Saño explained. 

Climate change is part of today’s and probably also tomorrow’s threats to food security. What we can do is to be smart about it. – 

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