‘Ginisa sa sariling bawang’
Exactly 20 years ago today, debates were raging in the Philippine Senate on whether the country should join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In the long years of intergovernmental negotiations before the creation of the WTO, the most contentious issue was the inclusion of agriculture, which was still outside of the global trade regime then.
The WTO’s potential impact on the country’s agriculture sector—whether adverse or positive—occupied most of the discussions during the Senate deliberations.
Farmers’ organizations and local producers’ groups saw it that time that the country was ill-prepared to compete with the heavily subsidized agriculture products from other countries.
Twenty years ago, farmers were already raising alarm bells against increasing the country’s dependence on food imports. This, they warned, would threaten the country’s food security and socioeconomic stability in the long run.
To counter these arguments, the Ramos administration came out with a very optimistic computation of the benefits from the country’s accession to the WTO. Such benefits included:
Increase in annual agricultural export earnings by at least P3.4 billion;
Increase in the annual gross value-added in agriculture by P60 billion; and
Creation of additional 500,000 jobs annually.
Grim economic realities
In the years after the ratification, such rosy predictions were blurred by grim economic realities. Those who were defending the country’s accession to the WTO could offer only lame excuses as to why the promised benefits remained unfulfilled.
In the hope of increasing market access, the government rapidly reduced tariffs on agricultural products way below the required WTO tariff rates.
To make matters worse, funds earmarked for the agriculture sector that would have helped make it competitive were never utilized. Rather, such funds ended up in the pockets of enterprising politicians.
Sadly, many of the defects and weaknesses highlighted during the debates in 1994 still exist and continue to render our farmers uncompetitive. Twenty years after, the agriculture sector appears to have been stuck in an eternal state of “being prepared for competitiveness.”
The purported gains for the agriculture sector in terms of additional jobs and trade surpluses remain an economic theory for those still pushing to expand liberalization.
Food importing country
Instead, we saw record increases in the volume of agricultural imports. The result: From being a net food exporter, the Philippines has become a net food-importing country.
One of the most glaring manifestations of this policy of wanton importation at the expense of food security and rural livelihoods is the decline of the local garlic industry.
Before the WTO regime, the local production of garlic was around 17,000 metric tons, more than enough to supply the needs of Filipino households every year.
Only a year after accession, 1,651 metric tons of imported garlic were dumped on the country despite a bumper harvest of 18,591 metric tons.
Last year, garlic production was down to a measly 8,847 metric tons. Meanwhile, garlic imports reached a peak of 28,690 metric tons or about 85 percent of the country’s garlic requirement.
In 1994, 7,000 hectares of our land area were planted to garlic. Today, garlic lands are down to 2,500 hectares.
More than these figures however, our main concern is about the thousands of garlic farmers and their families that have lost their livelihoods. With their income greatly reduced, many former garlic farmers have shifted to crops, like corn and tobacco.
In the pre-WTO period, garlic farmers earned anywhere from P40,000 to as high as P100,000 per hectare. The remaining garlic farmers today earn a mere P13,000 to P20,000 per season.
In contrast, other garlic-producing countries like China, India, Taiwan and the United States continue to support their respective garlic industries. In 1994, China had 36,000 hectares devoted to garlic production. Today China’s garlic is planted on 85,000 hectares of land.
Globally, garlic production increased threefold from 7,721,405 metric tons in 1994 to 24,836,877 metric tons in 2012. The land area devoted to garlic production likewise increased from 825,933 hectares 20 years ago, to 1,465,772 hectares today.
Right to protect
The government’s response to this garlic price crisis should be to prioritize our right to protect our domestic market. We can never access the markets of other countries through exports if we are unable to protect our own market.
The government must not only rethink its current policy but also act to revitalize the local garlic industry immediately.
Food security through self-sufficiency must be the explicit starting point of government efforts to revive the garlic industry. Food security through domestic production is the only real security.
Theories of food security through importation have been proven wrong time and again; it is reckless at best, and treasonous at worst.
The dramatic increase in the price of garlic in recent days is no accident. It is the expected boiling over of a long-simmering catastrophe resulting from the country’s overreliance on imports for our food needs.
We appeal to the public to patronize local garlic and other local agricultural products. Let us support, promote and stimulate our local industry.
(Rosendo So is the chair of Sinag [Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura].)
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