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Editorial

While farmers cry for help

/ 04:08 AM October 28, 2020

It’s a constant irony that Filipinos who produce food for the nation are also among the impoverished, and that agriculture, a sector most crucial to national well-being, is also among the most neglected by the government. Thus has it been for decades (the gripping photograph of the sacada bent under his load of sugarcane, emblematic of the poverty that nourishes the enduring insurgency, is ever resonant); thus it remains to this day when agriculture’s budget for 2021 appears pegged at P66.4 billion (a strange step down from its budget this year of P70.8 billion, and dramatically lower than its proposal of P284.4 billion for 2021).

Those who till the soil appear doomed, their lives marked by, among others, low incomes and lack of food security. The drop in the price of palay (unhusked rice) since September has been alarming farmers and the sector in general. The surge in the supply of imported rice, along with the storms lately battering rice lands and impacting harvests, have led to farmers selling their crop to private traders at a farmgate price of P12-13 a kilo — a disaster considering that for a farmer to recover production costs, the price should be at least P17 a kilo.

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From Inquirer reports, Agriculture Secretary William Dar assured farmers that the government through the National Food Authority (NFA) would beef up direct purchases of palay from farmers at P19 a kilo. Dar also called on local governments to take up the slack and not solely depend on the NFA, which, he said, had a budget of only P10 billion for its palay procurement program in 2020. But among the top rice-producing provinces, only the governors of Isabela, Nueva Ecija, and Ilocos Norte were said to have stepped up to the plate, so to speak, in order to, as deftly formulated by Cabanatuan Vice Mayor Julius Cesar Vergara, “command the price increase” of palay.

It’s the story of our lives: In this critical situation that requires a concerted effort, government action is wanting. Dare we hope that it is only the lumbering bureaucracy that is getting in the way of a swift official response?

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And why is there a glut in imported rice (as well as in imported red onions and such), against which Filipino farmers are ill-equipped to compete? Republic Act No. 11203, or the rice tariffication law (RTL) that took effect in March 2019, did away with government limits on rice importation in accordance with the Philippines’ commitments to the World Trade Organization. While admittedly farmers would initially be holding the short end of the stick under the law, it includes a six-year Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund of P10 billion annually for the purpose of supporting them in terms of credit, seeds, farm machinery, and technical help. The RTL was also touted to benefit consumers through low domestic rice prices, and, consequently, to reduce malnutrition and poverty.

But as the Inquirer put it in a banner story last Sept. 29, “Farmers cry for help as palay prices plunge.” The question naturally arose: What was the Department of Agriculture (DA) doing about it? Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto told reporters he was urging the DA to find out if the plunge in palay prices was a direct result of the RTL, and if so, to act accordingly. It’s not an idle call to action. Critics have said that despite the Philippines’ abundant resources, the DA leadership “made [it] food import-dependent”

Even earlier last month, Raul Montemayor of the Federation of Free Farmers was unequivocal in saying that the RTL was an empty promise. “…[R]ice farmers suffered drastic losses, which far surpassed any gains to consumers,” he wrote in inquirer.net. “In addition, a few importers and big-time traders cornered tremendous profits from rice trade liberalization at the expense of millions of farmers, millers, and other market players, who were swamped by the deluge of cheap and undervalued rice imports.”

On Oct. 7, the DA’s Dar was quoted as saying that imposing safeguard duties on imported rice had yet to be considered. No respite for local farmers on that front then, even as millions of metric tons of the grain are coming in from such countries as Vietnam and Thailand, where government subsidies and technological advancements make rice production cheaper. No benefit to consumers either: Despite the veritable flood, as of Oct. 10, prices of imported rice and even of local regular milled rice have risen by P2 a kilo.

Who’s making tons of money under the aegis of the RTL? If farmers are gripping the knife’s edge, of what use is the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund?

Per the US Department of Agriculture, the Philippines will remain the world’s biggest rice importer this year. Meanwhile, the hunger rate is up from 9 percent in December 2019 to 31 percent last month. Ironies abound in this Pearl of the Orient.

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TAGS: Editorial, National Food Authority, NFA, rice farmers, rice tariffication law, William Dar
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