April 6, 2008 · Posted in: Governance, In the News, Podcasts

‘Fields of Glo’

CLARK Special Economic Zone, Pampanga — Last Friday’s one-day National Food Summit at the Fontana Convention Center was yet another opportunity for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to dazzle everyone with her usual multibillion money solution. This time, in response to an impending rice crisis, Arroyo unveiled a new agribusiness agenda worth at least P36.5 billion primarily to boost food production.

Photo by Jaileen F. Jimeno

“We must work harder to grow and breed what we need,” Arroyo told the hundreds of summit attendees from the government and private sector during her keynote speech. “We are going to cluster our food production drive in six assistance packages, which are the essential ingredients in making food abundant, accessible, and affordable.”

On top of the P5-billion subsidy she already alloted to rice farmers earlier this week, Arroyo has allocated new funds for the program she dubbed as FIELDS, which stands for fertilizer, irrigation and infrastructure, education and extension, loans, dryers and other post-production facilities, and seeds and other genetic materials.

Of the said amount, P500 million would go to supporting the production of organic fertilizers; P6 billion each for irrigation and infrastructure; P2 billion for research and development; and P1 billion each for capability building, trainers and technicians, and the agricultural and fisheries education system.

Programs to distribute post-harvest equipment and establish rice and corn processing centers will receive P2 billion with the help of the private sector, and, until 2010, some P2 billion will be spent to procure hybrid seeds and some P6 billion for certified seeds.

The bulk of the funds, or P15 billion, has already been set aside by government financial institutions for agricultural loans, according to Finance Secretary Margarito Teves. An initial P5 billion has also been allotted by the Land Bank for 200,000 rice farmers.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said the summit was convened to harness the support and consolidate the inputs of all stakeholders in guaranteeing the country’s food security. Its expected output is a comprehensive program that would serve as the Arroyo administration’s blueprint for rural development until 2010.

‘Face-saving measure’

But with nothing much to show besides Arroyo’s P36.5 billion-worth announcement, the food summit seems to be just another “face-saving measure” on the part of the government. As Senator Mar Roxas described it, the event was an offshoot of an “adrenalin rush among executives to come up with abrupt measures.”

Roxas, chairman of the Senate committee on trade and commerce, said the summit only showed that the government was caught flatfooted by the problems in the supply of rice. “(It) should have been convened long before the Department of Agriculture‘s admonition for the people to start eating brown rice or half-a-cup of rice.”

Instead of a two-year action plan, the senator also proposed the adoption of a 10-year food security plan to be crafted “quietly but competently” in consultation with experts and stakeholders. “Otherwise, we will continue to muddle our way through a global regime of soaring food prices,” he said.

The way the situation and the recommendations were presented at the summit was like it was “business as usual” for the DA, remarked Belinda Formanes, executive director of the Partners for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development Services (PARRDS).

“The general context of poverty and underdevelopment in the countryside and the current rice crisis were not recognized,” Formanes observed.

The militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) called the summit a “waste of taxpayers’ money.” “If the money was used for procuring more rice from our farmers, it would have been better,” KMP chair Rafael Mariano said in a statement.

Instead of staging a summit that “would rather talk than solve” the rice problem, Mariano said the government should have long considered solutions as imposing higher farm gate prices for palay and other agricultural products; increasing the local procurement of palay by the National Food Authority by at least 25 percent; junking the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) and the agriculture liberalization sanctioned by the World Trade Organization; banning land use and crop conversions; dismantling the rice cartel; and implementing a genuine agrarian reform program.

In support of KMP’s position in the short-term, independent think tank IBON Foundation is likewise batting for more allocations for local procurement, saying that the estimated P62 billion to be used this year for imports would allow the NFA to purchase 3.6 million metric tons of palay from farmers.

“Aside from benefiting local farmers, this would also help NFA address the issue of hoarding by unscrupulous rice traders,” claimed Rosario Bella Guzman, IBON executive editor. She said the P5 billion earlier announced would only buy some 300,000 metric tons, which is less than one percent of the expected production this year of 7.2 million metric tons of palay.

Low priority, meager budget

While the amounts Arroyo dangled at the food summit seem generous, these only reflect the meager budgetary allocation, and hence, low priority that agriculture and the fisheries sector have been getting under the Arroyo government. For 2008, the agriculture department and the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Program received an allocation of P24.71 billion. This is less than half of the 2008 budgets of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (P53.24 B) and the Department of National Defense (P50.93 B), and is a mere fourth of the allocations for the Department of Public Works and Highways (P94.73 B).

While the approved budget for agriculture saw an increase of P2 billion from 2007, it pales in comparison to the increases enjoyed by other agencies like the Department of Transportation and Communications, whose budget rose by almost P4 billion, and the DPWH with its whopping P23.51-billion increase.

As it is, the new funds may not even be enough to achieve self-sufficiency in 2009. According to the Philippine Rice Research Institute, a 100-percent self-sufficiency rate can be achieved by next year if the government will invest in P59-billion worth of irrigation, post-harvest facilities and support to increase yield.

“If only it paid attention to its own rice agency,” noted Jessica Reyes-Cantos, lead convenor of the Rice Watch and Action Network (R1), pointing out that the Arroyo government is now spending for rice importation almost as much as the amount that it should have spent for irrigation, post-harvest facilities and increase in yield.

For this period alone, Cantos said the government is spending P58.7 billion for rice importation to avert a rice supply shortage.

“Nothing should hide the fact that this administration has not done strategically decisive measures to improve the rice sector and they should be made to face the consequences,” she said.

Farm lands as collateral

At the summit, Arroyo also proposed that farm lands be accepted as loan collateral in order for farmers to have access to formal credit, urging Congress to enact such a law.

The proposal, however, did not sit well with groups like PARRDS and other experts owing to what they warned as serious risks.

Mahal ang gastos sa produksyon at delikado ang agrikultura kapag bumagyo o nagkapeste (Cost of production is high and agriculture could be put to risk in cases of typhoons or pests),” PARRDS’s Formanes said. “‘Pag nalugi yung produksyon, mawawala pa sa kanila ang kanilang mga lupa, (If there’s no profit in the production, they could even lose their lands).”

Crop science professor Dr. Teodoro Mendoza explained that farmers are not keen on making their farm lands as collateral because what they need, more importantly, is crop insurance in case of calamities.

Saying that access to credit is not a problem, Formanes added that what farmers need is a more comprehensive program that does not put their properties at risk. PARRDS is therefore pushing for the passage of the Agri-Credit Act, which allows farmers to commit their harvest or purchase orders to banks. The proposed bill also includes a guarantee fund from the government, which can back up farmers, in case of low rice production.

Instead of rice imports, Formanes also suggested that early planting must be encouraged, and for the National Irrigation Administration to open irrigation and give credit to farmers now as an emergency measure.

Deputy Ombudsman for agriculture

In anticipation of the bigger spending for the agriculture sector, Arroyo said she is considering the proposal of Rep. Abraham Mitra, chairman of the House committee on agriculture, to appoint a Deputy Ombudsman at the DA to ensure that “money is spent wisely.”

“In all these programs, we must be transparent. We must work to fix the corruption that still plagues the nation, including the agribusiness sector,” Arroyo said.

Though the proposal is generally welcome, others like Senator Roxas would rather have the Arroyo government committing itself to transparency and accountability on the use of agriculture funds. Roxas maintained that public accountability should start with the government providing the public with the real score on its rice importation program.

Roxas argued that information — on the totality of the country’s rice imports, specific dates when these were negotiated, the price per metric ton, and their schedule of arrival — is the “best assurance to our people that there will indeed be adequate supply of rice in the country for the coming months.” (with additional reporting by Alecks P. Pabico)

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