"The continuing lament of our farmers and producers is very telling."
It is a sad commentary of our time that importation has apparently become the key to our food security. Walk into any grocery or public market or even a neighborhood talipapa and you will be amazed at the array of imported items lined up for the picking from our basic staple, rice, chicken, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and even condiments. There is nothing wrong with having these imported goods, of course.
We cannot simply cut ourselves off from the world and pretend we do not need to be part of the global trading flows. That would be disastrous. There are also goods such as apples and grapes which we cannot grow sufficiently and economically in the country.
Still, one has to ask why we are having such a flood of imports of the most basic items as rice, pork, poultry, fish and vegetables which can be sufficiently produced in the country if properly supported and advanced by the government. Why should we let basic needs be at the mercy of outsiders while we leave our very own farmers and producers increasingly marginalized and poorer as they struggle to till what remains of our available agricultural lands? If our current production is insufficient for our needs, then we should import in a planned, calculated manner not leaving our fate to the tender mercies of the free market. Truth be told, the free market in the Philippine setting is so free-wheeling it leaves our dreams of food security in tatters.
The continuing lament of our farmers and producers is very telling. Rice farmers, for example, have called on the government to use the funds raised from the rice tariffication law as price support and limit the flood of imported rice in the meantime that they are recovering from the latest natural disasters.
On the other hand, poultry raisers have exposed the fact that despite the scaling back of economic activities as a result of the pandemic the importation of chicken and chicken parts has exploded to at least double that of last year’s importation. In the case of our hog raisers, we all know that up to now our agriculture officials have yet to stem the ASF plague which has visited and specially devastated our small raisers. Most of them have to still beg for the scaled-down payment of their flock which the government pledged a year ago. These imbalances, these inequitable arrangements, these lackluster government support need to be reversed sooner rather than later if we are to even think of giving these basic producers a fighting chance.
We need not emphasize that with a young and growing population which must be nursed to optimize the country’s proper development, we have to get us out of this conundrum before it is too late. Before hunger stalks the land and before we get so tied up into what many now describe as a “basic needs importation trap” which can only consign the vast majority of our people farther into misery and our country into the dustbin of underdevelopment. We should not let that happen at all.
What seems to be the compelling reasons behind the lackluster performance of our agriculture, forestry and natural resources sector – the very sectors which nurture any country’s growth and development? Various studies by local and international bodies have identified the underlying reasons why this very critical sector, this key plank to our development is stunted, maybe even degraded beyond repair.
These studies validated by no less than the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an agency under the United Nations, show that growth in the sector is: a) beleaguered by high cost of inputs, inefficient supply chains and logistics systems, inadequate capital investments in infrastructure, irrigation and other public goods, low adoption of technologies, including mechanization and limited access by small producers to formal credit and financing; b) slow development of agribusiness (processing and upscaling of raw materials into various finished products); c) heavy reliance on traditional production systems in the cultivation of rice, corn, coconut, and sugarcane; d) vulnerability to extreme impacts of climate change and other environmental hazards; e) relatively weak linkage between RD &E compounded by emasculated agriculture extension delivery system of most LGUs; and f) Institutional weaknesses in the form of overlapping and conflicting policies, laws and legislations;
These vulnerabilities impact so heavily on the small farmers and producers whose capacity to upscale and access the most productive and modern agricultural means and methods is hampered by lackluster government support. If, as the FAO emphasized, small farmers feed the world,provide adequate, safe and affordable food, while taking care of the environment and rural landscape through agro ecological and sustainable farming methods, they can only do so with clear and responsive government measures and intervention. Sadly, the same has not been properly accorded to our own small farmers. Instead they have been at the receiving end of the latest government action such as the hasty passage of the rice tariffication law and the unabated issuance of import permits for just about any food and agricultural item in the customs’ Blue Book..This sad state of affairs has been undermined farther by continued smuggling of such basic goods which has been largely unreported of late.
At this point it maybe too much of a stretch to even hope that the administration will be able to carry out the measures in such a comprehensive manner as outlined by these various studies. But there is one thing which Congress and the Executive can do to at least provide some relief to our farmers and producers. They can adopt a system where government can intervene upon determination that the level of importation of any of the basic goods is such that it is negatively impacting on local producers. This system is akin to the old Oil Price Stabilization Fund (OPSF) scheme prior to teh full deregulation of this basic, highly politicized item which partook of a trigger mechanism where oil prices skyrocket beyond reach. Congress can give this kind of weapon to the executive to ensure that rice farmers get a fair price for their labor when a flood of imports by whatever means threaten their crops. That is not too much to ask of government if you ask me. A similar trigger scheme can then be put in place for the other basic goods as a reserve weapon to protect what is left of this critical sector. Once in place, then government can proceed to revive and enhance the support systems for these critical sectors as outlined in the many studies about what ails and what needs to be done to get these up to speed.