🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more
Food for 9 Billion

Philippines: Too many mouths?

Sam Eaton Jan 23, 2012
Food for 9 Billion

Philippines: Too many mouths?

Sam Eaton Jan 23, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Over the past 50 years, the amount of food that we as a planet produce has doubled. So too has the number of people who depend on that food. There are 7 billion of us now. The United Nations says we’re on the way to 9 billion by the middle of the century.

So that’s what we’re calling our year-long series on how we’re going to feed them all. Food for 9 Billion is a partnership with Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PBS NEWSHOUR. Last month, we took you to Egypt and the realities of food and revolution. Today, the Philippines, where a growing population means the country can’t feed itself anymore. And that leaves them with two options: Increase supply and try to do something about demand.

From outside Manila, Sam Eaton reports.

Sam Eaton: There’s a saying in the Philippines, “pantawid gutom.” It means to “cross the hunger.” When a family can’t afford rice, they’ll water down a pack of instant noodles or feed their babies brown sugar dissolved in water to ease the hunger pangs. The fact that this saying even exists should tell you something about what it means to be poor here.

Clarissa Canayong is 42 years old. She has 10 surviving children — the youngest only a year old. And she lives in an urban Manila slum called Vitas, at the edge of a garbage dump.

Clarissa Canayong: Normally, you have three meals in a day, but sometimes we eat only once. Other times, the children just have bread twice a day because we don’t have money.

Canayong’s house, her food, all the money she earns — around $7 a day on the good days — comes from garbage. Her family picks through the trash heap to find things they can use or sell. She’s lost four of her children to measles and dengue fever. This is the face of population growth. And not just here in the Philippines.



Most of the world’s next 2 billion people will be born into conditions similar to these, in countries already struggling to feed their populations.


Warehouse noise

On the other side of Manila, workers load sacks of imported Vietnamese rice onto trucks. The bags are stacked 50-feet high in this sprawling government warehouse. The Philippines’ population, today just shy of a hundred million, has tripled since the high-yielding rice varieties bumped up production back in the 1960s. And in order to feed all of those extra mouths, the country has become the biggest importer of rice on the planet.

Ernesto Pernia: Right now the Philippines is already beyond its carrying capacity.

Ernesto Pernia is the former lead economist for the Asia Development Bank.

Pernia: Otherwise we would be doing well. We would not just be muddling through. The fact that we have been muddling through, we have overreached.

And that “overreach” Pernia refers to, shows little sign of slowing. Today, about 2 million babies are born every year in the Philippines. Many of them here at Manila’s Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital. Its maternity ward is one of the busiest in the world, with two, sometimes three mothers for every bed.

Dr. Esmeraldo Ilem, head of the hospital’s family planning unit, says it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Esmeraldo Ilem: We are supposed to be seeing less and less of these women getting pregnant, but that has not happened.

In neighboring Thailand, for example, a long history of government-supported family planning has caused fertility and poverty rates to plummet there. It’s also paved the way for Thailand to become one of the world’s biggest rice exporters. But in the Philippines, the availability of birth control still depends solely on donations from foreign governments and nonprofits. And as international donors such as USAID cut funding for these programs, hospitals like this one are left scrambling for supplies. Ilem says if the situation doesn’t change…

Ilem: There will be a doubling of the population. There will be overcrowding of people. There will be a survival of the fittest.

Walden Bello: It’s a hell of a problem.

That’s Filipino Congressman Walden Bello. He says demographers expect that doubling of the Philippine’s population to happen sometime before the end of the century. And that’s only if something is done to close the birth control gap — especially among the poor — more than a quarter of whom have no access at all.

Bello: We’re running out of time. Our window of opportunity is closing up fast. And fortunately speaking, people — both among the poor and middle classes — are beginning to realize that my God we have got to get hold of this.

Bello’s been trying to pass a reproductive health bill in congress for more than a decade so that women at least have the tools to choose their family size. It would offer universal access to birth control for the first time in the Philippines’ history. But there’s a reason it’s been languishing in the halls of Congress.

Oscar Cruz: From contraception abortion comes. It’s just one step below.

Filipino Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz is a staunch opponent of the bill. He and the Catholic Church say it represents the interests of multinational pharmaceutical giants, not the people, 80 percent of whom are Catholic. All over the Philippines churches have plastered political banners on their façades. They’ve even threatened the president with excommunication.

Cruz: That’s why I say don’t fool with the church. Because she will bury you.

These warnings that the church will “bury” anyone opposed to its views point to just how much the issue of population growth here — and all over the world for that matter — is a battle of ideologies rather than economics or science. For Cruz, and many others who oppose efforts to curb population growth, the solution is simple. Grow more food. It worked in the past with the Green Revolution. So why wouldn’t it work again?

Robert Zeigler: I think in many ways we’re facing challenges that dwarf what we were facing in the 1960s.

That’s Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. This is where those high-yielding rice strains were first developed. Zeigler says with climate change and an increasingly crowded planet, the huge increases of the past may be harder to come by this time around.

Zeigler: I don’t think there’s any question that we will want to feed these people and we want them to be well fed and we want them to be well nourished and we want them to be healthy. At the same time, we have to do this in a way that once populations do stabilize that the world we live in is a place we want to live in.

And this is where things get tricky. Zeigler says the demand for rice is expected to grow anywhere from 50-70 percent in the coming years. Meeting that demand without jeopardizing the planet’s remaining ecosystems will take a level of coordination and foresight unprecedented in human history. For him, the technological Holy Grail is a bioengineered, photosynthesis-supercharged, rice strain. But such a breakthrough is decades away, if at all. And in the meantime the Philippines, and much of the world, is losing productive farmland, not adding it.

Protest caravan

I followed a caravan of protesting farmers in Nueva Ecija, the rice basket of the Philippines. Their land — some of the most productive in the country — is set to be paved over by a new highway and industrial park. As cities all across the country expand, the displaced often end up migrating to urban slums.

Once here, they enter a cycle of poverty that’s nearly impossible to break. Population growth among poor Filipinos is twice the national average. And for women like Clarissa Canayong, the mother of 10 I spoke with earlier, her inability to provide enough food, and to pay for her children’s education, all but guarantees she and her family will remain poor.

Canayong: One of my kids already has a suitor, I told her: “Danica, please don’t have a boyfriend just yet. You know very well of our situation. Do you want to get married at a young age and end up just like me?”

I asked Canayong: If she could do it all over again, how many children she would have wanted? Her answer? Two.

A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute found that the cost of providing birth control to the quarter-billion women on the planet who want it — but don’t have access to it — is about $4.50 a year, per person. But it could mean having 8 billion mouths to feed by the end of the century, instead of 15 billion. That’s the United Nations’ low and high fertility projections for global population growth. It’s a huge spread. But the only difference between those numbers is an average of one less, or one more, child per women.

So maybe solving the world’s food problem isn’t just about solving the world’s food problem. It’s also about giving women the tools they want, so they can make the decisions they want — here in the world’s poorest places.

In the Philippines, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Sam filed a second story from the Philippines, this time with pictures. It’s on PBS NEWSHOUR tonight, about how over-fishing is adding to their problems. And there’s more — explore an interactive map breaking down the global food challenge, country by country. Check it out.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.