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Farmers, fisherfolk achieve common ground with gov’t

Instead of an irreconcilable conflict between farmers/fisherfolk and government, common ground was forged at the National Food Security Summit (NFSS) on May 18-19. Furthermore, from May 31 to June 2, follow up top-level public-private meetings were conducted for the four major agriculture banner programs and cross-cutting issues. We quote today from the NFSS synthesis delivered at the Summit’s closing by chair Emil Javier of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines.

Points of unity. Both the Farmers Fisherfolk Congress (FFC) and the NFSS asked for decisive action on the agriculture crisis. Though many farmer and fisherfolk leaders from the FFC boycotted the NFSS because they believed government would continue to ignore them, others participated actively at the NFSS. Fortunately, most of FFC’s major recommendations were adopted by the NFSS.

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First, the NFSS agreed with the FFC assessment of our difficult agriculture situation. The NFSS stated: “The Philippine agriculture and fisheries sector has been a laggard in the Asean. The Philippines ranked 7th just above Cambodia and Laos out of nine Asean countries, and 73rd out of 113 countries in terms of the Global Food Security Index.” To the credit of the Department of Agriculture (DA) with its pre-Summit nationwide consultations, this inconvenient truth was affirmed.

Second, FFC argued that the government should provide the necessary support and services for producers similar to our Asean neighbors. Also, stakeholders should be protected by strongly opposing irresponsible import liberalization, which has resulted in suffering and a nonlevel playing field.

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The NFSS stated: “Targeted government support to domestic producers should be to enhance productivity, incomes and competitiveness. Continuing reasonable protection to domestic producers with appropriate tariffs and imposition of legal safeguards can be used when necessary.”

Third, the two critical missing agriculture initiatives of extension and consolidation identified by the five coalition Agri-Fisheries Alliance was advocated by the FFC. These initiatives were also fully supported by the NFSS: “The Province-led Agriculture and Fisheries Extension System now institutionalizes accountability for the agri-fishing development of provinces and regions. It devolves rural development to provincial governors.” In addition, “farm consolidation and clustering aim to improve economies of scale among small fragmented farms, and facilitate the distribution of productivity-enhancing assistance.”

Two challenges. There are two challenges that threaten the FFC and NFSS planned transformation. The first is government’s sincerity and commitment. The self-fulfilling prophecy applies here. Being skeptical and expecting nothing will result in nothing. But working together with a positive attitude and renewed resolve from the FFC and the NFSS will result in success.

The second challenge is for the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to take a new look at DA. They have consistently kept the DA budget at 1.5 percent of the national budget, despite agriculture and agriculture-dependent sectors contributing more than 30 percent of the gross domestic product.

When asked by Senator Franklin Drilon why the DA 2021 budget was reduced from P70.8 billion in 2020 to P66.4 billion in 2021, Economic Planning Secretary Karl Chua replied: “We have been putting hundreds of billions in agriculture over many years, and why is it that the sector has not helped the farmers rise up the income ladder? Agriculture growth should be at least 2 percent. This is not only about the amount of money in the budget, it is how we allocate and use them.” This is precisely why the FFC and the NFSS were convened.

For example, the DBM has recently turned down the DA’s proposed budget for high value crops (HVCs) of P5.1 billion, and agreed only to P1.5 billion. But if we are to transform agriculture, we must now add HVCs to our rice, coconut and corn areas, which occupy more than 80 percent of our land.This mono-crop system without HVCs condemns our farmers to poverty. There is little income, low labor usage and considerable harm to our soil and environment. As a reference, of our 3.5 million coconut hectares, 2 million hectares remain largely idle with no HVCs planted between them. With HVCs, income per hectare will increase from P30,000 to P250,000, idle labor harnessed with increased earnings, and our ecology improved. Aside from what the political will challenge, which the skeptics are watching closely, DBM must follow strictly the President’s call and provide funding for the new FFC and NFFS common ground initiatives.

No money, no honey. Otherwise, this much vaunted, awaited and necessary agriculture transformation will disappointingly be again just rhetoric and not reality. INQ

The author is Agriwatch chair, former Secretary of Presidential programs and projects and former undersecretary of DA and DTI. Contact is [email protected]

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