By JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Former Vice President
Compared to farmers in other Asian countries, our farmers have been burdened for decades by the high prices of seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation.
Filipino rice farmers do not receive subsidies for seeds or fertilizers. On the other hand, China offers free inbred seeds to farmers and free hybrid seeds to cooperative members. Seed subsidies are provided by India and Indonesia.
Irrigation water is free in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Filipino rice farmers used to pay between P2,000 and P3,000 per hectare as irrigation fee. According to reports, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) earns some P1.5 billion from fees collected from farmers and farmers’ associations. Most of our farmers live on the borders of poverty, yet government makes them pay for water, seeds, and fertilizers.
Thankfully, the current administration has taken steps to ease the burden.
In February, the President signed into law Republic Act No. 10969, the Free Irrigation Service Act.
The law exempts farmers who own eight hectares of land or less from paying irrigation fees and condones their unpaid loans and fees with the NIA.
We must commend Congress and Malacanang for their swift action on an issue that has long burdened our farmers. When I was vice president, I pointed out that farmers in particular, and the agriculture sector, in general, have been neglected by previous administrations. Recent government actions indicate a shift in priorities, and I am hopeful that such a focus will be sustained.
We are an agricultural country. Yet agriculture is the least productive sector. Poverty is prevalent in the agricultural regions, and farmers and fishermen are among the most poor.
I have seen research showing that our rice farmers earn the lowest net income per year compared to farmers in China and Thailand.
No wonder younger people in the rural areas, among them children of farmers, are not turning to agriculture. Enrollment in agriculture courses is sliding. For them, being a farmer is a road to hardship and certain poverty. And they have seen and experienced poverty firsthand.
As a result, we have an aging population of farmers, with the average age of Filipino farmers at 57 years old.
Why should we give priority to agriculture? There are several reasons, both long-term and short-term.
Let’s start with the urgent ones.
The agriculture sector’s share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been declining but demand for food is increasing because of our increasing population.
Our food security is constantly threatened by natural calamities that destroy millions worth of crops every year.
The El Nino phenomenon results in prolonged dry spells. Lack of water increases the cost of production as farmers will need to spend on fuel and equipment to pump ground water.
El Nino also lowers farm productivity. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), rice yields drop as much as 10 percent for every one percent rise in temperature.
Stronger typhoons places food security at risk. Lower crop harvests can increase the price of food. We have seen how the price of onion surged after a major typhoon hit Nueva Ecija, the onion capital of the country.
Thankfully, our economic managers recognize the impact of a robust agricultural sector in sustaining economic development.
Government’s allocation for agriculture has been gradually increasing, from P3.84 billion in 2009 to P80 billion in 2014. This year, the Department of Agriculture has been allotted P2.67 billion for new irrigation projects alone, and P4.28 billion for the construction of facilities and procurement of agricultural machinery and equipment.
But we need to do more. And we need to involve the farmers not as passive receivers of government assistance, but as partners actively engaged in defining and shaping their own development.
Government can work hand-in-hand with our farmers to explore crop diversification in small land areas. Community seed banking, seed buffer stocking, linking seed producers with credit conduits, and producing their own fertilizers are also areas for cooperative engagements.
Farmers would also benefit from improved crop insurance services, credit guarantees and reduced lending rates.
Then there are the long-term social and economic benefits of prioritizing agriculture.
If government focuses its resources on improving agriculture, you provide jobs and livelihood for millions of Filipinos. You lift millions from poverty and hunger and provide food stability for our growing population.
Any serious government effort to build an inclusive and sustainable economy must, therefore, give priority to agriculture.