Making Every Grain of Rice Count in the Philippines

A campaign to promote responsible rice consumption claims millions could live for a year off the rice every Filipino wastes each day.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Without fail, my mom asks the same question at our go-to restaurant: “Where’s the rice?” At house parties, the procession around the large buffet-style spread usually starts at the rice cooker. The grain is a staple of my Filipino family meals, and I’m far from alone.

“The meal really revolves around rice,” says Filomeno Aguilar, a history professor at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City. “It’s always rice plus something else.” That same thinking, Aguilar explains, also applies to restaurants like McDonald’s, which serves rice in the Philippines. “In today’s [Filipino] culture with fast-food restaurants, one could go for burger and pizza, and [without rice] it’s not considered a meal” he says.

So it might seem odd that in November 2004, the archipelago nation celebrated its first national rice awareness month, honoring an already indispensible grain. Though Aguilar says the campaign is directed mostly at schoolchildren, government officials want to use November to promote responsible rice consumption by all citizens: minimizing waste, thanking Filipino rice farmers, and, more recently, swapping white rice for brown.

For a country where the average person eats 250 pounds of rice per year (a figure that’s one of the highest in the world, though decreasing), the Philippines could use a friendly reminder to finish what’s on its plate. The average Filipino tosses out a couple tablespoons of rice each day. With an estimated population above 100 million, that seemingly small amount of per-person waste could feed 4.3 million people in the aggregate, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

Aguilar suspects that wastage skews higher among the middle and upper classes, which in 2012 consumed 7 to 12 percent more rice than the poorest Filipinos, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. “My father regarded rice as sacred, the gift of God,” he says of his upbringing in a family of modest means. “Every grain on my plate had to be eaten. Otherwise, I would get a scolding as a child.”

This new austerity plan goes for businesses, too. In the past few months, councilmembers in Quezon City and Cebu City have passed ordinances requiring restaurants and other food businesses to serve a half-cup of rice, instead of the full-cup norm. A similar 2013 bill from Sen. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.—yes, the son of the “martial law” president and the first lady with an impressive shoe collection—that would fine businesses nationwide for not allowing half-cup orders received some online pushback, to say the least.

Last year, coinciding with the Philippines’ National Year of Rice, the Southeast Asian nation introduced Brown Rice Day, encouraging restaurants to offer the whole grain as an alternative to the customary, more-refined white variety. The push has its roots in lifestyle and economic concerns, says Hazel Antonio who leads the Be RICEponsible campaign for the Philippine Rice Research Institute. The World Health Organization estimates 7.8 million people in the Philippines will have diabetes by 2030, and research suggests a brown-rice swap could lower risk for the disease. Plus, during the milling process, 10 percent more of the grain is retained in brown rice than white, which must have more layers removed and be polished for its pure color. Thus hearty brown rice could be a boon to the country’s overall food supply. (The Philippines was supposed to be rice self-sufficient in 2013, a goal that was pushed back—a typhoon certainly didn’t help—before being placed on hold this summer.)

But although Aguilar acknowledges its popularity is growing, current brown-rice consumption remains small and dependent on a person’s position in society: The middle and upper classes, which may be more aware of health trends, will more likely make the switch.

As for how schools will get involved, in a mid-October memorandum Education Secretary Armin Luistro encouraged everyone from students to department officials to participate in various rice-awareness events, including taking a rice pledge during flag ceremonies. The Philippines government hopes the third paragraph from the Panatang Makapalay pledge becomes a common refrain among Filipinos before they tuck into adobo, lechon, or anything that can accompany rice. A rough English translation reads: “I will get a serving that I can consume so there will be no leftover on my plate.” Wise words for rice lovers the world over.

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