Save farming and our farmers
It was too good to be true.
Barely 24 hours after announcing that he would order the suspension of rice importation “to avoid riots” among farmers impoverished by the Rice Tariffication Law, President Duterte did an abrupt turnaround and said he would just ramp up the government’s rice purchase and give cash subsidies to small farmers.
The law, which Mr. Duterte signed in February, imposes tariffs on imported rice instead of quotas, resulting in imported grain flooding the domestic market. While the glut has made the staple affordable and is credited for the considerable brake in inflation, it has also whittled down the buying price of local palay (unhusked rice). From P23.14 per kilo in September 2018, farm gate prices for palay shrunk to P15.50 last month, and even to an unsustainable P7 to P8 in some rice-producing provinces.
With P12 as the average production cost of palay, most farmers find it hard to recoup their losses, pay their debts and find the wherewithal for another planting cycle. Thus the tariffication law, which is supposed to make Philippine agriculture more competitive and sustainable in the long run, is for now being seen as one more affliction battering the Filipino farmer and contributing to a worrying trend: the mass exodus of such farmers from their fields into the cities, where many end up drafted into dehumanizing minimum-pay menial work.
What does this mean for the country’s food basket? A lot. The local rice industry employs 2.1 million farmers, who supply 90 to 95 percent of the country’s rice requirements. Who will replace their dwindling number?
A recent report by the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) titled “Rural Labor Migration: An Analysis of the Loss of the Labor in the Agriculture Sector in the Philippines,” underlined this bitter development: 15 out of 17 regions in the country reported the loss of farm labor between 2010 and 2017.
From a workforce of 12.25 million in 2010, the number of Filipinos involved in agriculture has plummeted by 25 percent to 9.07 million in 2017, the Neda report said. Most agricultural workers permanently migrated to jobs in construction, information technology, business processing management, transportation (as tricycle drivers), retail and food establishments (as salespersons or food attendants), manufacturing (factory workers), or as domestic helpers.
While these jobs do not necessarily pay higher wages, they offer a relatively more stable income stream, plus nonwage benefits and better working conditions—all of which are elusive in the agriculture industry. How can farmers and their families, after all, survive on P280.37 a day, the current daily average pay for agricultural workers, which is only half the minimum daily wage of Metro Manila employees?
As their grown-up children leave for the city in search of better job opportunities, aging farmers are left to tend the fields, which of late have also been ravaged by climate change and, in many places, by the encroachment of real-estate speculators, as demand for living spaces grow. Many eventually sell off their land or convert them to commercial lots, reinforcing the pernicious cycle that has made the agricultural sector the economy’s “weakest link,” with an anemic growth rate of 1.1 percent over the last decade, according to economists.
Agriculture Secretary William Dar says boosting farm productivity requires smart policy responses, such as government support through needed post-harvest, processing and drying facilities; low-interest loans; regular seminars on the latest farming innovations; and substantial investments on critical infrastructure that would not only help bring produce to market, but also protect against the adverse effects of a changing environment.
The problems may be smartly articulated, but how well and how urgently are they being addressed?
To arrest the hollowing out of the countryside, the government needs to preserve fast-vanishing agricultural land, craft a comprehensive and far-sighted land-use plan, improve public works and social services in rural areas, and put in place incentives for those who choose to work their farm lots, especially for young people who should be encouraged to consider agriculture and farming as viable options for study and/or work.
Supporting farmers and keeping farming alive is an act of survival: The Philippines remains an agricultural country, and on the much-burdened shoulders of our dwindling farmer population rests the food security and well-being of 108 million Filipinos.
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