The agricultural sector has managed to endure the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite lockdown measures severely impacting other sectors, by continuously supporting the country’s food security.
But the past year has been quite a challenge for the industry: changing quarantine protocols inhibited the mobility of goods in different areas, tropical cyclones devastated large swaths of farmland in the latter half of last year, and an African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak, which just recently President Rodrigo Duterte declared to be a nationwide state of calamity, have painted a grim picture for Philippine agriculture, whose output declined by 3.3 percent in the first quarter of 2021.
Meanwhile, two years after the signing of the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL), the policy continues to spark debate as farmers call for government support to mitigate its negative impacts on their earnings. But as the RTL shows promising benefits to the general public in the middle of the pandemic, mitigation strategies for rice producers have been put in place and protecting the livelihoods of farmers now boils down to proper strategy and implementation.
Even before the pandemic, local farmers have long struggled with the low selling price of rice plants—about P6 to P15 per kilogram (kg)—compared to the P32 to P48 market price of regular-milled and well-milled rice. Danilo Ramos, a rice farmer in Bulacan and the Chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), says that under the RTL, the price of rice plants dipped, while the market price of rice grains remained high, disadvantaging both farmers and consumers.
Despite the pandemic affecting local farmers, Engr. Agapito Pascual, an agricultural officer in the Municipality of Norzagaray, Bulacan explains that only their mobility under quarantine was hindered. “‘Yung production natin ng food which is the basic need natin, ay nagpatuloy,” he adds.
(The production of food, which is our basic need, continued.)
He also acknowledges how the government had provided help to farmers in their locality by distributing free seeds and fertilizer, doling out the Survival and Recovery Aid amounting to P15,000 per farmer, and providing farm machineries under the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF).
But Ramos contends that the financial subsidy for rice farmers—about P5,000 each to 591,246 out of 2.7 million rice farmers in the country—is not enough. “‘Yung ayuda na natanggap ay puwede naming sabihin na mumo o katumbas ng patak ng ulan sa malawak na kabukiran o ambon sa disyerto,” he laments.
(The aid we received is measly or a raindrop in vast farmland or a drizzle in a desert.)
The KMP continues to coordinate with the national government and with local government units (LGUs) to advance farmers’ calls. Products by provincial farmers are gathered and sold in urban areas, while relief operations are done through the collaborative effort of volunteers and LGUs. Farmer organizations in Norzagaray lend capital to farmers in the locality.
Production subsidy and cash aid are two points from the collated “Sampung puntong kahilingan” drafted by the KMP and other national organizations that echo the needs of farmers. Ramos suggests that the government prioritize the country’s food self-sufficiency by passing House Bill 477, or Rice Industry Development Act, which aims to enhance local rice production and give subsidies to local farmers.
Pascual, on the other hand, calls for the full implementation of RTL and a dry run of the Agricultural and Fisheries Mechanization Law which will help industrialize the country’s agricultural sector.
RTL as a long-term solution
Geny Lapina, an assistant professor from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB), asserts that while the transition brought about by RTL will be painful for rice farmers, it would be better to continue the policy instead of reversing it. Besides lowering the price of rice, the RTL will also allow imports to temporarily support the country’s food supply chains given the inhibited mobility of goods under lockdown measures and the recent calamities that struck the agricultural sector.
Lapina maintains that rice farmers must get the support they need from the government to aid them throughout the transition. “Generally, it will always be difficult to balance between consumers and producers,” Lapina writes in an email to The LaSallian, adding that this is because lower prices are preferable to consumers while hurtful for producers. “We simply must support farmers. Other countries do so, and we should too.”
Dr. Imelda Molina, also an assistant professor from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in UPLB, believes that the RTL has been a “game changer” for the Philippine rice economy. As a member of a team of rice policy experts assigned to comment on the DA roadmaps, she argues that the policy is not exclusively pro-consumer; the support for farming machinery and training provided by the RCEF, programs introduced by the RTL, makes the law pro-farmer as well.
She points out that the lower rice prices have significantly helped poor families, who spend one-fifth of their income on rice, get through lockdown measures during the pandemic. “We must give the RTL a chance, especially now that we have [already seen] the initial benefits in just two years,” she asserts. “So how much more if this stays on the horizon for more than six years?”
However, Molina acknowledges that while there is support from the government, a law is only as good as its implementation.
Beneficial to both sides
To help the livelihood of farmers stay afloat, Molina suggests leveraging e-commerce as a way to market food products to help businesses prepare for future crises, as she argues that the COVID-19 pandemic will surely not be the last of its kind.
Meanwhile, Lapina notes that the DA’s budget, which is about 1.5 percent of the 2021 national budget of P4.5 trillion, should be increased. The country’s neighbors typically allocate at least three percent of their national budget to agriculture, with Vietnam spending the most at around six percent. Indonesia, meanwhile, has recently increased its agriculture allocation from three percent to about six percent amid the pandemic. “Sadly, agriculture support in the country has not been consistent and often only high when there is [a] crisis,” Lapina writes.
The agricultural budget is also highly rice-centric, he highlights. Allocating the budget to other high-value crops, such as cacao, coconut, and coffee, will provide rice farmers with more options for livelihood.
“Rice farming alone will not lift rice farmers out of poverty,” Lapina concludes.