Palace shifts focus to high-value crops
THE Aquino administration on Tuesday signaled a shift in its policy of rice self-sufficiency to encourage the farming of alternative, high-value crops even as the government struggles to curb rampant rice smuggling.
The government missed its target of rice self-sufficiency in 2013 after typhoon Santi devastated Central Luzon during the harvest season last year.
“The consensus [of] the Cabinet is that it is not enough to look at rice self-sufficiency alone,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said. “Rice is just an alternative product for farmers and it can be that within the planting period, we can give incentives to farmers to focus on other products.”
Coloma said there was “no singular focus” to increase productivity of rice lands, but to increase productivity of the entire agricultural sector.
“By itself, the rice self-sufficiency target is a worthy objective, but it cannot also by itself increase the productivity of the entire agricultural sector,” Coloma added.
The Palace official, however, clarified that the government is not abandoning its rice self-sufficiency program.
“Since rice is the staple food, we cannot attain food security if there is no rice sufficiency. According to Department of Agriculture, the country attained 97 percent rice sufficiency in 2013,” he added.
Coloma said among the leading high-value crops that are widely accepted in the export markets are bananas and pineapples.
“We are also developing organic fruit products such as dragon fruit,” Coloma said.
A farmers group, however, cautioned the administration about trying to convince rice farmers to shift to higher-value crop farming, saying this would lead to heavy rice importation and smuggling
“The Philippines could become dependent on imported rice. What food security are we talking about here?” said Danilo Carranza, secretary general of the Kilusan Para sa Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Kalipunan.
Coloma said setting up special courts for tax evasion and smuggling cases, including the illegal importation of rice, should be part of the systemic reforms that the administration aims to implement.
But it will be up to the Supreme Court, which has administrative supervision over the courts, to decide on this, he added.
A task force has already formed by the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the unabated rice smuggling in the country.
The task force is composed of the NBI’s anti-graft division and its regional office in Metro Manila.
The Senate earlier recommended the prosecution of suspected rice smuggler Davidson Bangayan, otherwise known as David Tan, along with Danny Ngo, Danilo Garcia and Willy Sy who have been accused of smuggling.
Senator Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Senate committee on agriculture and food, said the planting of alternative, high-value crops will boost agricultural production and will eventually increase the income of farmers.
The additional earnings from other crops would also help reduce poverty among farming communities, she said.
The idea of intercropping is not new, she added, noting that Nueva Ecija farmers plant rice during the wet season and garlic and onions during the dry season.
She said vegetables, corn, banana, cocoa and coffee are also being planted under coconut trees.
In this way, farmers will still have income while waiting to harvest the coconuts, which usually takes four years, she said.
Two opposition lawmakers, however, opposed the new policy.
Quezon Rep. Aleta Suarez and Gabrila party-list Rep. Luz Ilagan, in separate interviews with the Manila Standard, said that a shift in the rice self-sufficiency policy would be counterproductive.
“They want to help the farmers in Vietnam while killing our farmers,” said Suarez, a member of the independent minority bloc in the House.
She added that such a policy would not help farmers, and would not curb rice smuggling.
Batangas Rep. Mark Llandro Mendoza said Congress would exercise its oversight function to review the government’s shift in rice policy.
Mendoza, chairman of the House committee on agriculture, added that Congress would work to restore the National Food Administration’s monopoly on the importation of rice, and taking it away from the private sector.
Ilagan, a member of the leftist Makabayan Bloc, called the shift “the most anti-farmer and pro-foreign trade policy.”
“Already, our farmers are suffering from the trade policies that the government is following. The neo-liberal trade policies imposed by the [World Trade Organization] are detrimental to our small farmers,” Ilagan said.
The shift in rice policy, Ilagan added, was an admission that the Aquino administration is “incapable of protecting the rights of our own people.”
Despite these fears, Agriculture Undersecretary Dante Delima, who coordinates the national rice program, said the government would continue to strive for rice self-sufficiency.
“So far, I still have no information on the new directive issued by Malacanang. While I have to agree that high-value crops also need to be prioritized, we will continue our efforts to achieve our
sufficiency in rice,” Delima said.
Delima said for this year, the national rice program aims to produce 19.06 million metric tons of rice.
Rice production increased 2.3 percent year-on-year to hit 18.44 million metric tons in 2013, on the back of strong harvests in the fourth quarter, the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics said last week.
Palay (unmilled rice) production in 2013 topped the previous year’s harvests of 18.03 million MT, led by robust production in the fourth quarter, despite the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda in the central parts of the country.
Palay production in the fourth quarter, the peak season for harvest, increased 8.2 percent to 7.08 million MT from 6.54 million MT a year ago, the bureau said. With Macon R. Araneta, Maricel V. Cruz, Anna Leah Estrada and Rio N. Araja
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