Amid the bleak global news on wars and jihads, there are awe inspiring stories on the food front that break through like slivers of sunlight on dead, forbidding nights. In frozen Alaska, for example, lettuce is now grown even in the deadest of winters. In Africa, field tests have been producing cassava of humungous sizes, two or three to a 50-kilo sack. Chinese wine makers have been challenging the vine yards of the French and those of Napa Valley.
Sudden bursts of rain seem to have ended the misery of farmers in drought-weary California.
Not only that. Using all benchmarks and all measurements, food production technologies have advanced and the push has translated into larger yields, across all products and across all continents.
But do not discuss the state of agriculture and food production at the home front. It will break your heart and make you wish that our leaders would stop acting like modern caciques and start paying attention to our agriculture sector in general and small farmers in particular. Amid the boasting and gloating of the Aquino administration, agriculture, the sector that represents 30 percent of Filipinos is a Slough of Despond and the Department of Agriculture (DA) is a certified Flagship of Utter Mediocrity.
Proof? Read this and you will weep. In 2015, the DA had a budget of P85.6 billion, most of it to lift productivity across the board, from main crops such us rice to the important agri sub-sectors. You know what? For the P85 billion plus allotted to the DA, the growth rate of agriculture was less than 1 percent for the year and knowing how unreliable government-issued stats are, that less than 1 percent figure could be the most optimistic version.
I will give you the figure again. Less than 1 percent growth for a budget of P85 billion.
Okay, fair question from the peasantry to which I belong. Since it turned out a near-to-negative growth rate, what did the DA apparatchiks do with the billions in development funds? Many answers. (1) Issued press statements on how great the agriculture sector was and how great Mang Procy was. ( 2) Pay a semi-pro football player from England to invoke the greatness of rice production (his billboards have been taken down). (3) Squander the money and cite “natural calamities” as the reason for the production breakdown.
The truth is the DA and Mang Procy Alcala—and Mr. Aquino, his prime sponsor—are the true calamities that have befallen the agriculture sector and small Filipino farmers.
There had been surges in the agriculture sector, but these have been negative and not positive, to the lives of the Filipino farmers. I will make a quick list.
Number 1 is the volume of rice importation. Last year the volume of official importation plus the smuggled volume topped two million metric tons. As I have written before, Philippine imports recently made Vietnamese rice farmers happy as massive rice orders from the Philippines lifted the price of Vietnamese rice exports, which had sunk to an eight-year low in August. The NFA is in debt to the tune of P155 billion. Unprecedented volumes of rice imports will continue this year.
Number 2 is the rise in the number of major smuggling rings operating at the ports and whose racket is to smuggle rice, meat, poultry and all sorts of commodities into our country. With brazenness and impunity. If you think the culture of impunity has been snuffed out by Mr. Aquino, think again. A party-list group said there are 17 major smuggling rings merrily operating at the ports.
In the rural areas, the smugglers of pork and the surplus supply they have been bringing in illicitly, have kept farm gate prices at impossibly low levels. Hard hit are the small backyard raisers like myself. Farm gate prices are now P98 per kilo for backyard farms, P105 for the semi-commercial farms and P110-112 for the commercial farms with modern and sophisticated facilities.
Production cost is more than P100 per kilo and the backyard raisers like myself have had their equivalent of a one-year drought. Ok, another fair question. Why are not the backyard raisers quitting. Answer: We know that Mr. Aquino will step down in June and maybe, just maybe, things will change for the better after he and Mang Procy are gone .
On top of the smugglers, meat processors favored by government also do massive importations of frozen carabeef and they divert the excess into the public markets. So, backyard raisers are up against a double whammy. Smugglers and licensed meat processors who abuse their importation privilege.
Number 3 is the near-total dominance of agri-business giants and non-agri corporate entities over loans granted by government under the Agri-Agra Law.
On the surface, the periodic BSP reports on the loans that flow to Agri-Agra are harmless and sterile. No. On the contrary, they tell a very tragic story of how shabbily the government-run financing institutions have been treating small farmers and agrarian reform beneficiaries. I will explain.
The Agri-Agra have lending loopholes the size of volcano craters. The loopholes are exploited to circumvent the Agri-Agra loans away from small farmers into agri-business giants, from giant rice milling and warehousing operations. And into non-agri corporate entities such as real estate developers.
For example, real estate developers doing mass and socialized housing are allowed to tap into the Agri-Agra funds. The government, instead of lending to the small farmers that need the loans most, grant supposedly farmer-centric loans to real estate giants and list such lending as “compliance .”
The laws and institution designed supposedly to help small farmers are used to lift the corporate entities and shaft the farmers. I have to add this. Shaft the small farmers with impunity.