Increase, not slash, agri funds
Under the 2021 National Expenditure Program submitted by the executive department to Congress following President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address in July, the Department of Budget and Management provided a Tier 1 budget ceiling of P61 billion for agriculture next year.
That amount is 17 percent less than the Department of Agriculture’s current budget of P79.9 billion, and a pittance compared to the P284.4 billion budget for 2021 the department had asked for to support growth in the agriculture and fisheries sector amid the crippling economic effects of the pandemic.
Agriculture Secretary William Dar had requested a significant budget increase to “sustain, reboot and grow’’ the agriculture and fisheries sector, which he said had been for the longest time a “sleeping giant’’ of the national economy. Its vast potential remains untapped, and higher and sustainable growth had not been achieved due to neglect and low funding support, he said. “While the agriculture sector contributes about 10 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), it gets a measly share of total national appropriations, at 3 to 5 percent in the last 10 years,” Dar pointed out.
A higher budget for agriculture would enable the country to achieve a 95-percent sufficiency level for rice, with the DA’s proposed allocation of P56 billion for rice production support, said Dar. The DA has also sought P22.5 billion for fisheries, P13.7 billion for high-value crops, P11.2 billion for livestock, and P6.6 billion for corn.
Why the national government would give low priority to agriculture at this time is baffling. Not only are food security and economic recovery of paramount importance against the specter of an open-ended pandemic and widespread hunger among millions of Filipinos out of jobs. As it is, the agriculture sector has also proven its capacity to grow at a time when most industries and economic sectors were reeling from the lockdowns.
Economist and Inquirer columnist Solita Monsod pointed out in a recent column that agriculture, “the most ignored sector’’ of the economy, was the one piece of good news in the pandemic-triggered unprecedented contraction of the Philippine economy, posting a positive performance of 1.6-percent growth compared to the negative performance of industry (-23 percent) and services (-16 percent).
During the second quarter of the year, when the food supply chain was disrupted by the community quarantine restrictions, agriculture still managed to post a 0.5-percent growth, driven by the increased demand for staple crops like rice and corn. The value of agricultural produce also increased by 4.6 percent to P439.8 billion, according to an Inquirer report.
President Duterte himself, in his Sona last July, called for boosting the agricultural sector to enable the country to recover from COVID-19, noted Magsasaka Rep. Argel Joseph Cabatbat. So why is the DA’s budget being slashed instead of augmented? “The decreased budget will cause tremendous sufferings, not only among our farmers, but also among our people, whose main aim at these times is to have food on the table, if only they get ample support from the government,” said Cabatbat.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate and Kabataan Rep. Sarah Jane Elago also scored the meager allocations for agriculture, health, and social services while the budgets for infrastructure (P1 trillion), the military and its modernization program (P236 billion), the police (P191 billion), and even the President’s intelligence and confidential funds (P4.5 billion) were jacked up.
In a report early this month, the Philippine Statistics Authority said agriculture continues to be the least attractive sector of the economy in terms of average pay it could offer. For 2019, average wage for agricultural workers increased by only 49.8 index points from 2012, and even much lower when purchasing power is considered.
The labor department also reported that agriculture offered lower pay compared to other sectors. While nonagriculture workers got an average wage of P537, the maximum wage rate for agriculture was P500.
The sorry state of the sector was highlighted in a report by the National Economic and Development Authority in November 2019, which took note of the worrying exodus of local food producers from the fields to the cities in recent years. From a workforce of 12.25 million in 2010, the number of Filipinos working in agriculture had decreased by 25 percent to 9.07 million by 2017.
Agriculture badly needs sustained support. The against-all-odds growth it showed this year should be bolstered to the hilt, not stunted once again by budget cuts and misaligned priorities.
“What lies in your hands right now is the food security and resiliency of the country, the future of the 109 million Filipinos and counting,’’ appealed Dar. He couldn’t be more right.
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