CITY OF SAN FERNANDO -- Central Luzon, the country's rice granary, is now moving towards industrialization, a reality that will have adverse effects on the region and country's food sufficiency, said the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

The PSA's 2015 Gross Regional Domestic Product, based on the 2002 Census of Agriculture (CA 2002), reported that Central Luzon is among the three regions in the country that have become predominantly industrial, along with Cordillera Administrative Region and Calabarzon (Region 4A).

"Of the 5.3 percent region's growth rate, the industrial sector contributed 2.3 percent compared to the Agriculture, Hunting, Forestry and Fishing sector's 0.1 percent," the report said. The PSA, in its Review of the Agriculture Sector in Central Luzon, said that in 2002, Central Luzon registered 341.5 thousand farms for agriculture use, covering 552.1 thousand hectares.

The region's total agricultural land area comprised 25.6 percent of the region's total land area. Compared with 1991, the number of farms decreased by 2.7 percent from 350.8 thousand farms. Likewise, the total area decreased by 12.7 percent from 632.5 thousand hectares.

As a result, the average farm size slightly decreased from 1.8 hectares per farm in 1991 to 1.6 hectares per farm in 2002. Generally, the decrease in the number of agricultural farms could be attributed to the increasing population in the region at an annual growth rate of 3.2 percent," the PSA said.

In Nueva Ecija alone, the regions supposed leading palay producer, farmlands were registered at 223,853 hectares in 1991 but is now down to 196,390 hectares, according to PSA.

Pampanga, the former leading rice producer that was offset by Nueva Ecija couple of years back due to lesser farmlands devoted to agricultural production, also registered reduced number of farmlands from 91,241 hectares in 1991 to 64,959 hectares in 2002.

“Palay, which was grown in 522.8 thousand hectares in 250.1 thousand farms, was the major temporary crop in the region in 2002. However, the area devoted to this crop had decreased by 19.5 percent, from 649.7 thousand hectares in 1991," the PSA added.

Pampanga, which once had the biggest number of farmlands in the region, is now only on third place after Nueva Ecija and Tarlac.

The numbers may not seem relevant if not for the fact that Central Luzon accounts for 18 to 19 percent of the country's total palay production. This means that the country produces 3.7 million metric tons in full year crop cycle.

Central Luzon only needs two million metric tons to sustain its own population and the rest is sold as surplus to other regions. It is also the number one producer of fresh water fish and poultry products supplied in markets of Metro Manila.

But Central Luzon farm lands are slowly being converted for industrial and non-agricultural commercial use. Republic Act 9700, or Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension, in its Section 65, strictly prohibits the conversion of "all irrigated and irrigable agricultural lands."

However, the sale and conversion continues unabated as seen the development of housing units in former farmlands, construction of subdivisions and the rice of industrial and recreational facilities in once fertile farmlands in Central Luzon.

It could be recalled that Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano had asked President Rodrigo Duterte for a moratorium on the acceptance of applications for land use conversion.

Former Department of Agriculture (DA) Regional Director Andrew Villacorta said there is no cause for worry. He said while the statistics may point toward a direction of industrialization, the region, by natural demand for food from its population would still maintain enough farmlands.

Even the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) share the DA's opinion. Neda Director Severino Reyes said "the dominance of the industrial sector is brought by the revival of the manufacturing businesses in the region and the public's constant use of electricity, gas and water supply which are factors of the said sector."

Reyes stressed that the numbers do not explicitly indicate industrialization but rather show that the region is just gaining more investors which contributes to its economy. He assured that government is firm on protecting agricultural lands from entry of investors.

"Policy makers will always make sure that there is enough land for food production. It is just a matter of regulation and implementation of existing laws," Villacorta said. He added that it is still a policy to only convert idle lands for industrial use instead of irrigated lands. Villacorta said there are now idle lands being eyed by the DA that are up for possible conversion to farmlands.

Villacorta said the PSA should also factor in data of lands being opened up for agricultural use. "For DA, we are now looking for 1 million hectares that could be opened up for rice farming," Villacorta said.

For Central Luzon alone, there are around 305, 817 potential rain fed area that could be opened up for agricultural use. In Nueva Ecija alone, there are around 131, 869 potential area for development. Villacorta said there are a lot of idle lands in Central Luzon. New areas could be opened for agriculture production. Villacorta said these may also include lahar damaged farmlands that could be reused through soil conditioning.

The DA added that rapid development in the towns and cities of the region is not generally a threat to agricultural production as there are many adaptive ways on using lands both for agricultural production and commercial purposes like urban gardening for towns and cities. He said increasing the cropping intensity of rain fed areas and other farmlands could also compensate for the increase in population and decrease in farm lands tilled.

"To think that industrialization and urbanization will totally destroy the agriculture sector has no basis as there will always be ways to compensate and adapt agricultural production with current demands and threats," Villacorta said, adding that the country will never end up depending solely on agricultural imports as the Philippine agricultural sector is stronger than most people think.

But both Neda and the DA admit that conversion of agricultural land for human settlements, recreational, and industrial purposes are issues that should be addressed with the proper implementation of existing laws and stricter regulation, as well as alternative ways to boost agricultural production in urban areas.