The nation’s  rice farmers  need help

Published November 20, 2019, 12:12 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat

E CARTOON NOV 20, 2019
We needed the Rice Tariffication Law, RA 11203, to stop the fast-rising prices in 2018. We remember how inflation hit 5.7 percent  in July that year, 6.4 percent in August, and 6.7 percent in September.  RA 11203  removed  the  old quantitative restrictions  on rice importations and  imposed tariffs instead.  With no limits on rice imports, cheap rice from  Vietnam  and  Thailand  started arriving and rice being the the key element in Filipinos’ market purchasing, the inflation rate started going down.

The huge importation of  cheap  rice  did  indeed  stop  the rising market prices last year, but at great cost  to  Philippine  agriculture, the rice industry in particular.  For with cheap  imported  rice  in  great abundance  in the market,  Filipino rice famers  saw prices for their own harvests  plummeting.

Philippine  agriculture  has not received   much attention in many years. The Rice Tariffication  Law was only one of the developments in the downward  trend  in Philippine agriculture, especially  rice  production.

One result of this policy  been  the steady fall in the country’s agricultural labor  force. In the last seven years, a study by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said, this agricultural labor force has  sunk  by 25 percent.  From   12.24 million workers in 2010, the number of farm workers fell to 9.07 million  in 2017, according  to the NEDA study. Of  the 17 regions of the country, 15 reported falls in agricultural employment, the biggest  drops  being in  the  Ilocos Region, Central Luzon, Calabarzon,  Bicol, and Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Agriculture is today the country’s  weakest economic link, according to Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, growing only 1.1 percent  in the last ten years. The biggest reasons for this are high production costs, low farmgate  prices,  limited access to credit, poor irrigation system, and  conversion of agricultural  land to commercial projects.

We must not allow this fall in Philippine agriculture to continue. With our lands and our rains and other natural resources, agriculture  should  have  a  bigger role in national  economic  growth. And if only for the fact  that we are a rice-eating people,  rice  production must be given all the assistance that it can get.

Camarines  Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte  has proposed a House measure to allow the government  to tap  rice tariff collections in excess of  P10 billion  for the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement  Fund (RCEF) and  set up as an emergency fund to help farmers.  He  proposed  that  the excess amount  go to a cash transfer system  similar to the cash subsidies being given to poor households by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

President Duterte last Sunday  apologized  to farmers for the low prices of  palay  and said he was ready to meet with them to discuss their concerns. These  may well include  the need for increased  mechanization, more irrigation facilities,  greater assistance  through  easy loans and marketing  —   measures  that  will help  Filipino  rice farmers be as productive  as their fellow rice farmers in Vietnam  and Thailand.