Put the spotlight back on locally grown food
If this is the time for Filipino cuisine, then it may well be the time for Filipino native produce and ingredients, too. One exciting offshoot of the hard-fought campaign to popularize Filipino cuisine on the international stage is that it may also benefit the Filipino farmers who grow the produce essential for Filipino dishes, and encourage them to search and culture other indigenous produce. The sobering part, on the other hand, is that unless the farmers share in the economic rewards of this growing recognition for Filipino dishes, then this coming-of-age might be short-lived.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of our culinary icons—there are so many to mention, with 2016 Asia’s Best Female Chef Margarita Forés first coming to mind—combined with the energy and creativity of an emerging new generation of professionals working in the food industry, Filipino cuisine has finally caught the attention of the global culinary scene. The Department of Agriculture (DA), has led the way too. After so many years of focusing on major crops like rice, corn and cassava, the DA, largely through the work of Undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat, has significantly shifted its attention towards the rediscovery and new-found focus on unique Filipino indigenous produce. Now, people are talking more about—and planting more of—such crops as adlay (also known as Job’s tears), pili, ube (purple yam), as well as cacao, and coffee, more than ever before.
It makes sense. What makes our cuisine unique is our unique array of local produce and ingredients. Furthermore, stressing produce unique to our country, and which grow very well in our country, places us at an advantage in the international market.
The yearning for local produce has been so palpable, that even in my farm— Malipayon Farms, where I grow specialty fresh produce using organic and bio-dynamic methods—I have learned to look out more for unique local crops. The effort, in close collaboration with the wonderful chefs who have taken the time to visit and share their ideas, has resulted in new produce, from “hip” lagkitan corn sprouts and stunning blue ternate edible flowers, to good import substitutes like “aruy-uy” non-spicy chillies (as a substitute, for example, to the Spanish Padron chillies), mustasa (mustard) and labanos (radish) micro-greens, even alugbati flowers, to name a few. I’ll certainly look for more produce to discover. And rediscover.
Having Filipino dishes and produce in the international limelight is a welcome development that presents opportunities for our farmers to earn more. It may be a matter of survival. The reality is that while all agricultural crops are grown in farms, the bulk of revenues is earned outside these farms, by players around the farmers, more than the farmers themselves. Farmers, particularly in our country, find themselves squeezed by the rising costs of inputs such as chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and the perils of weather risk and market risk. So much can be lost in one big typhoon as to bring farmers into debt. High productivity may be negated by a drop in selling prices, in case supply gluts occur. Plagued usually by the “one-buyer-trader/several sellers-growers” environment, where one major trader usually monopolizes and dictates prices, the farmer is usually left with very little to grow and maintain his farming enterprise. This is especially true among small farms.
Climate change presents even potentially greater problems for farmers. Some produce that farmers have grown for a long time may not fare as well with the changing climatic conditions. Climate change may cause greater insect infestation, as plants are more stressed from unfamiliar growing conditions.
Growing more local indigenous produce, in combination with what farmers have grown for quite some time, may also increase the resilience of their farms to the risks they are exposed to. Farms become more ecologically balanced if a greater diversity of produce is grown. (Plants do have a way of supporting each other, by becoming more hospitable to organisms that help feed them more nutrients, and protect them from harmful organisms, if they do not use chemical inputs that may kill these beneficial organisms.)
In the end, deriving more profits from growing higher value produce is what will keep farmers in farming, and encourage their children to continue this noble work. As Filipino cuisine grows in stature in the international culinary scene, what will sustain it is how it fares in the local front. Ultimately, it will force us to answer questions such as: How do we value our own local produce? Are we willing to pay more for local produce, so our farmers can earn more than the usual survival income? Will traders evaluate how they do business with the farmers who grow our produce, so that farmers can earn a greater share of the final value of the produce they have sweated out planting, and kept in the fields for weeks or months before they could harvest? Can farm workers be paid more for the important and back-breaking work they do?
Filipino cuisine coming of age is a big boon to our food industry and to our identity as a nation. It would be a big victory indeed, if our farmers could ride on it and lead a better-quality life. Or it could leave a sour taste, if our farmers or food producers stay poor in spite of the coming of age of our cuisine.