POSTSCRIPT / April 6, 2008 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Not one pork barrel cent pledged in Food Summit

CLARK FIELD — The Fontana convention center here was filled Friday with farming stakeholders pledging support for a crunch-mitigating package unwrapped in a Food Summit by President Gloria Arroyo, but some elements were conspicuously absent or silent.

The groups that committed support included the Philippine Food Processors and Exporters Organization Inc. led by its president, Roberto Amores; the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry led by its chairman emeritus Ambassador Donald Dee; Philippine Maize Federation represented by Rosalie Ellasus; Philippine Association of Broiler Integrators represented by Rita Palabyab; Philippine Fishing Federation represented by Alonzo Tan; and the Philippine Vegetable Council led by Lyndon Tan.

Absent were the grains hoarders and members of the rice cartel. But that was understandable as they must be busy somewhere else looking for more ways to make millions off the looming food crisis, real or contrived.

Another sector whose commitment we missed was Congress, some of whose members — especially senators — had contributed to magnifying the food problem by harping on the negatives that everybody already knew rather than offering legislative solutions.

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SILENT SOLONS: While no senator showed up, some congressmen led by Speaker Prospero Nograles were on stage with the President, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and other community leaders who came to offer pledges and suggestions.

I was waiting for Nograles to contribute not just his presence but maybe one or two proposals and a legislative agenda to ensure more stable supply and prices of rice, but there was not a peep from him.

That was a golden opportunity to demonstrate that the House under his leadership now acts with dispatch when it comes to people’s welfare or the mitigating of their livelihood problems.

It would have been the perfect occasion for the Speaker to announce that he brought with him the pledges of congressmen committing a slice of their pork barrel to irrigation, fertilizer, seeds, and other farm-related concerns.

Instead of spending millions of taxpayers’ money on luxury cars, junkets, padded hotel and restaurant bills, sweetheart deals, et cetera, congressmen would have won some points by contributing to food production.

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MEASURING IT: Just how big is the rice problem? Talking in round figures, Yap described it to Postscript.

Assuming a 90 million population with each person eating 120 kilograms of rice per year, the country needs 10.8 million metric tons of the grain. That volume of rice would come from 16.615 million MT of palay (unhusked rice).

As 1.3 million MT of that needed palay will go to seeds and wastage, we have a self-sufficiency target of 17.915 million MT of palay.

In 2007, we produced only 16.3 million MT of palay — or a shortage of 1.6 million MT. You can round that deficit to 2 million MT of palay, which transforms to 1.3 million MT of milled rice.

The National Food Authority imports 1.5-1.8 million MT of rice annually to cover that deficit. (A few private businessmen also import rice and pay a 50-percent tariff.)

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‘FIELDS’ UNVEILED: Shunning the piecemeal approach of critics and kibitzers, President Arroyo and Secretary Yap put together a package of intervention measures — dubbed “FIELDS” for easy reference — requiring P43.7 billion.

Farmers’ and agribusiness groups in the summit pledged to support “FIELDS” — and submitted their own suggestions on how to improve the productivity and profitability of agriculture and fisheries.

“FIELDS” stands for the six areas where Malacanang will funnel support: Fertilizer, Irrigation, Education and training of farmers and fishermen, Loans, Dryers and other post-harvest facilities, and Seeds of the high-yielding, hybrid varieties.

Threats to food security are not unique to the Philippines. Globally, there are destructive climate changes, declining farm production, growing food demands by giant economies such as China and India, and the rising use of edible crops for biofuel feedstock, and rocketing oil prices.

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CONSULTATIONS: Before the summit, Yap conducted regional and sectoral consultations in February and March to gather the support and recommendations of stakeholders in agriculture, which even then was already on a high growth course.

The department also held separate dialogues with mayors belonging to the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP), international development partners and industry leaders, as well as members of the academe.

The Leaders’ Briefing in Manila with the mayors led to a declaration of support by 40 LMP provincial chapter leaders — led by Mayor Ramon Guico of Binalonan, Pangasinan, who also heads the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) — for the food production programs of the department.

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TESTIMONIALS: Farmers who had benefited from government assistance talked about it at the Food Summit.

Model rice farmer Felino Garcia of the Bagong Buhay Multipurpose Cooperative in Sto. Domingo, Nueva Ecija, recalled that his average yield nearly doubled from 90-120 cavans per hectare using inbred seeds to over 200 cavans per hectare using hybrid varieties that Agriculture had provided under its seed subsidy program.

Naging doble po ang aming ani at naging doble ang aming kita. (Our harvests and incomes doubled),” Garcia said.

He noted that the department under Yap has also helped them boost production by providing flatbed dryers, mini-rice mills, threshers and harvesters.

Elyvic Ardado, a farmer from Sarangani, said that Agriculture has helped them raise production in their corn plantations from 3.9 metric tons per hectare to 4.5 MT per hectare.

“From P42,000 per hectare, we now earn P55,000 per hectare,” Ardado said. “Besides helping us produce high-quality corn grains, the government also provides us free packing and free trucking for our produce.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 6, 2008)

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