Incoming Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol on Wednesday said he would ask for at least P30 billion additional budget for this year to be used as an immediate assistance and rehabilitation fund for the agriculture and fishery sectors, which were badly hit by El Niño.
In a press conference, Piñol said that he already discussed the matter with incoming Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, saying that the additional funding would allow the farm sector to recover faster from the worst drought to hit the country in decades.
“Our agriculture sector is down due to the effects of El Niño. The growth of the sector during the first quarter of this year is very bad,” he said.
The Philippine farm sector grew a measly 0.11 percent in 2015 as farmers delayed planting due to a lack of irrigation.
In the first quarter of 2016, agriculture production contracted by 4.53 percent as positive output increments in the livestock and poultry subsectors failed to offset the continued downturn in the performance of the crops and fisheries subsectors due to the prolonged dry spell and damage caused by typhoons.
“I talked to Secretary Dominguez and told him that if we don’t pour new funds in the form of calamity assistance to the agriculture sector and the fisheries sector, we will really find it hard to recover,” he added.
The newly-appointed incoming DA chief said that the budget would be allotted for various interventions and assistance, including farm inputs and livelihood projects.
Meanwhile, Piñol said that the funding would not be a form of subsidy to farmers, noting that an international treaty prevents the Philippine government from subsidizing the agriculture sector.
“We will look at this as calamity assistance,” he said.
Last month, the Department of Agriculture said it is seeking a supplemental budget of P1.269 billion to mitigate the impact of the lingering El Niño episode to food production.
A proposal had already been sent to the Department of Budget and Management for P500 million to replace the DA’s Quick Response Fund (QRF), which has already been siphoned dry.
Another P769 million budget will come from the Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (DRRMC), which would be allocated for adaptation and mitigation programs in provinces.
The budget, sought for release as soon as possible, would cover production support for rice, corn, high value crops, livestock and fisheries. It would also fund other interventions such as crop pest management, water management, and information campaigns.
Earlier, the DA asked for more than P2.1 billion in additional funding to mitigate the impact of the El Niño phenomenon.
The DBM, however, has yet to release the funds needed for programs to help farmers who have expressed interest to continue planting despite the prevailing drought.
QRFs are built-in budgetary allocations that represent pre-disaster or standby funds for agencies in order to immediately assist areas stricken by catastrophes and crises, and are not limited to El Niño-related needs.
A more ambitious target
The incoming DA chief stressed that food security, particularly paddy rice production, will be the top priority of the Duterte administration.
“In the past, people would say, ‘never mind rice production and focus on high-value crops.’
This is no longer applicable after the El Niño episode hit Thailand. We’re going to exert all efforts and focus our resources to make sure that we will attain rice sufficiency,” Piñol said.
“It is imperative that we should have rice sufficiency,” Piñol said, but refused to provide a timetable for the target.
In fact, he said that under his leadership the Philippines, which has been a net rice importer for the last 50 years, will be able to export rice again.
To do this, Piñol said that at least 1 million new hectares for rice cultivation would be opened during his term. This will translate to additional 4.8 million metric tons of rice, more than enough to cover the 1.8 million MT rice shortage annually.
The Philippines has one significant disadvantage in rice production compared with major rice exporters like India, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, all of which are countries drained by some of the world’s largest rivers.
The country is also considered the most calamity prone nation in the world with an average of 20 typhoons hitting the country annually. Rice production costs in the Philippines are also higher than in Thailand, Vietnam and India.
To lower production costs and make Filipino rice farmers more competitive, Piñol said that they are now studying the viability of low-cost communal irrigation projects instead of maintaining irrigation facilities that have become rundown.
“There will be a major shift in the perspective of irrigation. Instead of mega-dams, which takes billions of pesos and many years to complete, we should focus on smaller irrigation projects,” he explained.
Piñol said that the incoming administration expects to implement the new scheme by early next year.