Just as George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” prior to his May 25 murder, several Filipino farmers also “can’t breathe.” This is due to factors such as injustice, corruption, incompetence and indifference. This is now being addressed. But there is an urgent need for significantly more government and private sector partnership in agriculture development. Fortunately, Agriculture Secretary William Dar has made this part of his “new thinking.”

On the antiterror bill, farmers cannot breathe until there is certainty that the bill will protect freedom and follow the Constitution. In the past, several farmer leaders have been unjustly harassed when they peacefully asked for reforms. They may be the victims of a law that is not carefully crafted and prone to the abuse of human rights. The objective of fighting terrorists is laudable. But on June 11, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines urged President Duterte to veto its “constitutionally questionable” provisions.

Farmers will also breathe easier when they see agriculture, and consequently their low incomes, grow as they should. Consider the table above.

In addition to the disappointing agriculture growth, there have been other instances when farmers could not breathe. During the alleged Napoles scam, the farmers were used as the reason for the fund releases. Some government officials closed their eyes and participated in this massive corruption. Up to now, many have not been punished.

When rice farmers lost 54 percent of their income from P25,960 in 2018 to P12,040 in 2019 because of the rice tariff reduction to 35 percent, a farmer leader (with summa cum laude credentials from Ateneo de Manila University) calculated their loss at P68.2 billion. Research group Ibon reported it was P84.8 billion. However, a government official said the loss was only P8.2 billion, downplaying the enormous suffering our farmers endured.

In addition, government officials blamed rice prices for the inflation spike from 1.9 percent in 2017 to 6.8 percent in 2018. When DA officials were asked to talk to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) to verify this, they declined. Farmer leaders had to therefore visit PSA themselves to find out the details behind this claim.

Since curbing inflation was cited as a major reason in reducing the rice tariff, it was critical to know the facts. This is because the 35-percent tariff would cause great difficulties among the farmers. Contrary to what most perceived, the PSA reported that rice accounted for only 10 percent of the inflation in 1918 (with electric, gas and other fuels accounting for 13 percent). Similarly, government officials credited the decrease in inflation in 2019 to the lower rice prices because of the tariff reduction. But again, the PSA reported this accounted for only 8.5 percent of the decrease.

Farmers objected to what they saw as possible fake news that prematurely terminated the ongoing government study on the rice tariff. If this study had been completed, it could have paved the way for an increase in tariff duties allowed by our own law (Republic Act No. 8800) and the World Trade Organization.

On June 5, the Urban Broiler Raisers Association (Ubra) wrote Secretary Dar on our poultry crisis. Poultry farmers were shutting down one by one, with prices declining to below breakeven level. Because of COVID-19, demand had slackened, with inventory levels doubling from 25.2 tons last year to 49.3 tons today. But instead of supporting the farmers during this pandemic as other countries do, our farmers got the opposite.

Ubra wrote: “The DA’s Bureau of Animal Industry recommended that we self-regulate and limit production so as to make space for imports. We were then told to go into exports. This is one of the most bizarre thinking that ever emanated from the DA.”

But there is a bright side. Under the administration’s declared “new thinking” on significantly increased joint government and private sector involvement, agriculture radical reform will hopefully take place. Our farmers will then be able to breathe the new air of improved governance, and the goal of significant sustainable agriculture growth finally attained.

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


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