Mon. May 23rd, 2022

We are entering a season when promises, exposé, and bright and outrageously absurd ideas from cavernous craniums are fed to the electorates.

We are being harangued by oft-repeated motherhood declarations, among them that “agriculture is the backbone of the Philippine economy.” Let me delve on this subject.

The government economic and agricultural managers of our country have been passing the buck to each other on who to blame over the lethargic state of agriculture.

It does not help that the Senate Chairman of Agriculture, Food and Agrarian Reform is Cynthia Villar of the majority and Kiko Pangilinan of the minority. They are, by their core business and professions, are classic examples of square pegs in round holes.

The National Economic Development Authority and the Department of Agriculture (DA) tell us that agriculture is the backbone of the Philippine economy. The two agencies cited that 40 percent of Filipinos are into agriculture but that it contributes only 20 percent to the gross domestic product.

But what exactly has the government done through the years to re-invigorate the beleaguered industry?

Some of my readers will begrudge me for this but these are indelible facts.

Ferdinand E. Marcos constructed 95% percent of the irrigation systems that we see today throughout Mindanao. Among the first were those of Midsayap, Kabacan, Norala in Cotabato. From just one cropping, farmers of irrigated lands planted twice a year.

The Philippine National Bank, which was then owned by the government, had “bank-on-wheels” that offered cheap loans in tandem with the Masagana-99 program.

One of the most significant strategies done implemented during the Marcos era was to increase the buying price of palay at the farm gate to encourage a quick turnaround.

Today, for lack of drying facilities, farmers were motivated forced to sell their freshly harvested and threshed palay, otherwise, these will turn rancid due to their moisture content which make these unfit for human consumption. Such was to prevent unscrupulous traders to dictate the price.

Read: Food growers clamor for return of Marcos-era Masagana 99

Tasked to address the plight of the farmers were Arturo Tanco as Department of Agriculture Secretary and Domingo Panganiban who was focused on the successful implementation of M-99.

Tanco and Panganiban were among the people in the government bureaucracy who comprehend the problems confronting the rice farmers in particular.

Manny Piñol was on his way to addressing the complex challenges in agriculture but he has no patience in bureaucratic squabbles. He resigned. Well, he is running for the Senate and if luck is with him, he might be able to continue moving his crusade.

To develop the rice industry, Marcos created the National Grains Authority that competed with private traders by going into the procurement of paddy rice. The NGA (later named National Food Authority) was also directed to develop massive post-harvest facilities like silos and rice mills, among others.

Irrigation systems, Masagana 99, NGA’s fair and just procurement of freshly harvested palay plus post-harvest facilities and the Philippines, in one golden era, became a rice exporting country from 1977 to 1981. Tanco for his part became the President of World Food Council of the United Nations. Those were the years of the great bonanza for the Filipino farmers.

What happened after Marcos was a holocaust as many were simply incompetent and ignorant of the nuances of rice cultivation and the biggest tragedy was that nothing had been done to rectify the injustice done to the farmers.

Maybe borne out of extreme hatred against the Marcos administration, the new centurions irrationally discontinued projects that would revive the memories of Marcos among these the framework that emancipated the farmers from exploitation and desolation.

Projects that cannot be dismantled because doing so would cause horror were merely left to rot. Others, like the Food Terminal Inc. cold storage chain facilities and real estate were sold as sweetheart deals to those who helped overthrow the dictatorship and installed the Aquino government.

The NFA warehouses, rice mills, silos, to name a few, were abandoned and cannibalized. There was not a single attempt to restore and recover the valuable assets that were set up by the Department of Agriculture for the farmers.

Father of Hybrid Rice Yuan Longping briefs Philippine businessman Henry Lim Bon Liong and Frisco Malabanan, Agriculture rice program director (to his left) on the idiosyncracies of the new rice variety. Lim described his 24-year-old friendship with Longping, as among the most precious memories in his life:

“Yuan is so fluent in English that he could not only discuss academic topics at ease with his international counterparts, but also teach the Philippine farmers the hybrid rice plantation method, which garnered him a high level of respect from the latter.” The World Food Prize laureate died May 2021 at the age of 90. In the Philippines, Lim, who is now chairman and CEO of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, has championed the SL8 variety by setting up an elaborate seedling farm in Bay town, Laguna province.

Exceptional was from December 2002 to July 2004, when Secretary Luisito Lorenzo topped the annual agricultural productivity from the usual average of 2.9% per annum to 8.7%. He did this by introducing the less thirsty Yuan Longpin variety of hybrid rice for humans; genetically-engineered hybrid (not GMO) corn for livestock; the Excel-Plus variety of tilapia that generated harvests every 3 months (from the traditional 6 months, beating Costa Rica’s 4-months Lift-variety; and beefing up pineapple and banana exports to China.

But Cito had to resign after only 19 months because he could not stand ghost deliveries of liquid fertilizers by Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, un-regulated rice smuggling by NFA administrator Arthur Yap, and relentless technical smuggling of carrots, onions, garlic, chicken leg quarters and pork, sanctioned by President Gloria Arroyo to generate funding for her 2004 election to a full six-year term.   

Fast forward, the Duterte administration attempted to rectify the abuse and neglect which government itself inflicted on the farmers by discontinuing the irrigation fees. But that is not what the farmers were asking for.

Farmers were willing to pay because the fees were meant for the maintenance and repairs of irrigation canals. What they were begging for is fair and just prices for their palay which sank to an all-time low of P7 per kilo when the viable rate was P23.

The coconut farmers also stopped harvesting because prices dipped to a ridiculous P1 per nut, least tenable rate was P5.

And now comes Agriculture Sec. William Dar with still another sterling rhetoric.

Only a few months are left with the Duterte administration but DA Secretary Dar is still talking about his vision which he said will require dedicated efforts among major agri-fishery industry stakeholders, led by the Department of Agriculture, to continuously empower farmers, fisherfolk, agricultural entrepreneurs, and the private sector to increase agricultural productivity and profitability, taking into account sustainability and resilience.”

Bold words. To translate that to action is another story.

It’s too late to indulge into a protracted reverie.

President Rodrigo Duterte is sincere in helping the farmers but he has been taken for a ride by “technocrats” who hates the smell of the earth but love the comforts of their air-conditioned office and the perks that go with it. The president has been schooled in food trade as Davao is known for its exports, but hardly is he any deep in food security or production of food for the table of 110 million mouths to feed.

If agriculture is crucial in revving up the economy, then why cannot the government simply incentivize it?

Raise the buying price of palay from the prevailing P12.50 to P15 per kilogram (kg.) to P19 to P23 per kg. Taking an average of 100 sacks of palay harvested per hectare at 65 kg. per sack, you have an estimated average of 6,500 kilograms of palay per harvest.

The 6,500 kgs. of palay, if bought from the farmers even at P20/kg. will give a farmer P130,000 in gross income per hectare per harvest. That is enough motivation for him to plant twice a year which will translate to a gross revenue of P260,000 per hectare each year. If he cultivates two hectares that’s more than half a million pesos per year.

With good income, farmers can absorb the cost of farm inputs. Furthermore, the government can lift the tariffs on imported fertilizers and other inputs given the soaring prices of the commodities worldwide.

The Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) should be abolished as it was meant to address shortage of rice at a given time. Sadly, Sec. William Dar refers to it as a game-changing reform policy that broke the decades-long inefficiency of the country’s rice sector and enhanced its prospect of being globally competitive.

Frontline presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos Jr. estimates that the legislated benefits of the RTL can only afford to incentivize one region’s requirements.

A policy? The RTL is akin to a noose in a farmer’s neck. Why cannot the government just provide the subsidize? As it was proven before, a well-motivated rice farmer can double and improve on his productivity.

If the government can subsidize the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, a conditional cash transfer project of the Philippine government under the Department of Social Welfare and Development to the tune of P108 billion for the unproductive poor, why condemn the rice producers to only P10 billion proceeds from rice imports that is really a dagger to the heart of agriculture?

The 4Ps grants have been notoriously tagged as indirect subsidies to malls that are owned by oligarchs and the ruling elite.

If that is difficult to understand then maybe the next administration should revisit the templates that Arturo Tanco and Domingo Panganiban crafted during the Marcos regime. That is if they can swallow their pride.

The average farming age presently is 57 years old.  That old man has sent his children to school to become overseas contract workers.

The proverbial question is if the rice farmer quits agriculture, who takes over?

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