Small thoughts on big issues – agriculture and nuclear energy

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AGRICULTURE and nuclear power are two subjects that have been raised by the new president, his team and his commentators. I am happy that they are doing this because they are important and these issues, which were absent from the campaign, are now being discussed. I wonder why none of the campaigns cared about important issues besides motherhood slogans? Duterte rode the scourge of drugs to successfully differentiate himself. None of the campaigns went beyond major platitudes in my opinion. Some had stances that were more like extended slogans with an explanatory paragraph but nothing worth reading.

Food cost versus food security. I consider this to be a major concern, but don’t pretend to be knowledgeable on this issue to give specific advice. My observations are that the debate is between lower food prices, thereby opening the country to more commodity imports, and food security, which for some analysts may mean higher food prices, but, more importantly, requires proactive policies to improve production, distribution and processing at the national level. I heard that our country is overpopulated and the farms are so small that we will not be self-sufficient in rice and basic products. I find this a dumb argument that concedes the problem rather than working on it. Well, if we’ve reached Malthusian levels, then we need to keep population growth to a minimum, which I think we’re 50 years behind the times to do. Whatever stealth gains we made by reducing the rate of population growth have been reversed by the power the Church has after 1986. I am 63 years old and in my lifetime the population of the country has gone from around 20 million to over 112 million. Most of our neighbors doubled or tripled during this time while we grew more than five times. Exponential population growth has not been a success when comparing the growth rates and GDP of our neighbors with their moderate population growth. It also led to the misguided economic rationale to justify dogma. I’d have more respect if they just said it’s a matter of faith and dogma rather than imposing fallacious economic theories that no prosperous country subscribes to.

Japan has a higher population than us and less space but has domestic food security. With their population of 126.5 million [we are fast catching up there], they have productive farms and severely limit imports of agricultural and food products. Yes, the food is more expensive there, but the supply is safe and also maintains social peace. The European Community and the United States are big buyers of agricultural and meat products from their local producers and keep prices low for their people for the same reason. Go to Hong Kong, lots of eggs, poultry and pork come from Europe. They are exported at a loss after securing local supplies and sold on the domestic market at subsidized prices so that the population is fed at affordable levels, farmers satisfied and producers and processors in production.

Many have argued that we can’t make it and so on. I think we find it difficult and there are too many “reasons” to keep importing. Don’t expect the rent-seeking mob to pass up opportunities to seize. I don’t think the solutions are simple or easy to implement, but for 112 million people, relying and growing on imports for basic commodities seems frankly wrong and unsustainable anyway. The disturbances currently being dealt with have made this obvious to me.

Nuclear power and in particular the Bataan site [it is not a power plant as there is no reactor. It is like saying a building is a factory even if there is no machinery in it]. I agree with my fellow columnist and friend Ben Kritz on his take on this zombie powerhouse. Same thing with Marlen Ronquillo. I will not repeat their point of view and suggest that you read their columns. I will limit myself to a few additional points. To open this Bataan factory 50 years later given its 1970s design is like saying, “How should we watch this show? Betamax or VHS?” The world has gone way beyond that many times over with laserdiscs, DVDs, and now streaming and video on demand. Even with nuclear energy technology. Well, I guess, given that our policy is still Marcos vs. Aquino over 50 years after the rivalry began, should we be surprised that this is still up for debate? On the cost, let me write something because I get really irritated when so called experts and authority figures pontificate about the cheapness of operating a nuclear power plant.

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Oh good? Based on what? It is generally the cost of operation that these self-proclaimed experts refer to. Which is frankly false because it is only part of the total costs. What about the capital cost? Nuclear power plants are not cheap. Funding? They are not easy to fund. Insurance? Add the cost of running the factory and additional liability insurance. Storage and disposal of radioactive waste — how will this be controlled and who will pay for it? Transfer all this to consumers? Look at the total cost and it’s no longer cheap. That’s even without paying for self-insurance to deal with a disaster. Then, for my friends in the private sector, who will lead this? The government is the only one who can even think of paying for a cleaning if necessary. So if a private company is running it and something happens, who are we going to direct to deal with it, and what are the lines of authority to deal with an emergency and fund it? Who will write the insurance policy for this and how much will it cost if it is even available? How will the costs incurred be recovered? Note how, except in the United States, most nuclear power plants are owned by the government for safety and cost reasons. It’s not so simple anymore, is it?

All are simple if you have confirmation bias.



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