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PH achieves ‘historic best’ in farm output

Fifth of a series

When the Aquino administration assumed office in 2010, government officials said the agriculture sector registered low productivity after years of  over-importation of rice, farmers continued to get low returns for their labors, and farm infrastructure was in poor condition and not built to face the challenges of climate change.

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Six years later, the Department of Agriculture claims to have achieved the country’s “historic best” in farm production, particularly for staple grains rice and corn.

Data from the DA show that palay output exceeded 18 million tons yearly from 2012 to 2015, even during the worst of what was considered as one of the three strongest occurrences on record of the El Niño phenomenon.

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Agriculture Secretary Proceso J. Alcala declares that, although the country failed to achieve self-sufficiency in rice, the  Philippines is now producing 97 percent of the country’s requirement.  He says this is significantly better than the 81 percent self-sufficiency rate in 2010.

Agriculture officials also say farm incomes rose across commodities in the last six years. Palay farmers now earn twice as much—P31,375 per hectare from P15,830 in 2010. Corn farmers now earn about thrice, P16,712 per hectare from the previous average of P5,760.

As for infrastructure, the DA says this has improved through sustained concreting of farm-to-market roads (2,922 kilometers) and irrigation canal linings to make them “climate resilient.”

In terms of resource conservation, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) closed fishing grounds during spawning seasons to allow different species to reproduce undisturbed.

BFAR also ramped up its campaign against illegal fishing, helped tremendously by an amended fisheries code that imposed stiffer penalties for violations.

But the DA acknowledges that agriculture continues to face major challenges. Foremost among these is the relatively high cost of production, especially of palay.

The situation becomes more problematic as import curbs—a quota system—will expire in mid-2017. This is expected to result in the flooding of cheaper rice from neighboring countries.

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The International Rice Research Institute has warned about this possibility and said the Philippines had to prepare farmers for competition.

“One of the reasons why the country’s rice is not as competitive as the commodity in Vietnam, Thailand and other rice-producing countries is the high cost of production,” says Bruce Tolentino, IRRI’s deputy director general for communication and partnerships.

“This can be attributed largely to high labor costs,” Tolentino adds. “Once we’re able to manage rice production and make it less expensive and comparable to, say, Vietnam, we will then be able to manage production costs.”

Farmers in Thailand and Vietnam produce palay at a cost of about P6.50 per kilo, while Filipino farmers spend an average of P11 per kilo.

While the DA says Filipino farmers can achieve competitive prices and costs, only demonstration farms seem able to do it.

Another issue that has to be addressed is the confusing food policy of the government. Cabinet officials have argued publicly in the past few years on whether it was better to pursue self-sufficiency in production or to allow a healthy flow of imports.

The early years of the Aquino administration saw the DA limit the importation of milled rice as it pushed for self-sufficiency, following the President’s initial strong stance against excessive importation done by the National Food Authority during the Arroyo administration.

But by mid-term, key members of the economic team including then Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan dismissed the policy of attaining rice self-sufficiency,  pushing instead for a renewed inflow of imported rice to ensure enough supply and to let market forces determine prices.

This even led to the creation of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Food Security and Agricultural Mondernization, which brought back the NFA — and the Philippines — among the world’s largest importers of rice.

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