CABANATUAN CITY, January 18, 2006 (MALAYA) BY JOJO DE GUZMAN — Lito Tambalo, 42, of Barangay Maimpis, Science City of Muñoz is a rice farmer whose family is forced to buy and eat the cheaper but lower quality imported rice that the government buys.

Such is the irony for most poor farmers in Nueva Ecija whose plight comes in sharp focus as trade ministers around the world meet in Hongkong for the sixth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Unabated onion smuggling and infusion of cheap rice imports has plagued the province’s onion and rice industry.

Although producing some of the most tender and fragrant rice in the world, many Novo Ecijano farmers do not even get to smell a whiff of their own produce, as they find themselves heavily indebted to traders by the end of the planting season.

Tambalo said they are forced to buy poor quality rice from imported sources as they just allocate a portion of their harvest for their family’s own needs.

It has been a common knowledge that rice of much poorer quality are stocks that are smuggled into the country in underwater containers, a rampant practice that government has not been able to curb. These are re-milled by rich traders, and mixed with the local rice produce.

Tambalo said "it smells bad, doesn’t cook well, and easily spoils. This is the kind of rice that many of us end up with. So how can it be claimed that farmers benefit from rice importation?"

In nearby Bongabon town, some 30 kilometers east of this city, life may not be that easy but good weather permitting, the town’s sandy loam could always be counted on to produce the best quality onions and bring meals to the table.

Jinky Sadoy, 35, of Barangay Macabaklay, said in the early 90’s, farmers could gross P50,000 in one season, with a P15,000 investment.

Sadoy is one of the estimated 75,000 onion growers in Nueva Ecija, most of them based in Bongabon, a town that carries the title "onion bowl fo the Philippines" because it is where 80 percent of the country’s onion produce comes from.

Farmers’ survival depended on this single crop. How the onion fared from one five-month cycle to another largely determined what food they could buy and what other household needs they could afford.

More ironies plague the nation’s rice and onion industry, whose backward state has not been addressed by effective support programs.

The dampening effect on rice productivity is so obvious, yet, reports show that the Philippines registers one of the highest productivity potentials in Asia at 6.30 tons per hectare. Since 1995, actual yield has been less than half or 3.07 metric tons per hectare.

The country’s agriculture was supposed to ease into the trading regime promoted by the WTO with a minimum of pain through the Rice Clause in the Agreement on Agriculture which provides for the retention of quantitative restrictions on traditional staples for a defined period of time.

"Supposedly, this was meant to cushion the impacts of rice shortages in the country, but even before harvest-time, the government would already allow the entry of imported rice," said Tambalo also the president of Samahan ng mga Magsasaka sa Likas-Kayang Pananakahan o SAKAHAN, a federation of farmers promoting sustainable agriculture. "But how can locally produced rice tagged at P22 per kilo compete with imported rice priced at P7 a kilo?" he asked.

While importation meant maintaining a certain level of protection on the rice industry, the nation was still required to progressively increase quotas regardless of need. Various reports estimated rice imports at somewhere between 30,000 to 59,000 metric tons in 1995 to more than 220,000 metric tons in 2004.

Even worse, government brought in imports above the quota, citing the inability of local production to meet demand. Imports went from 263,000 metric tons in 1995 to 639,000 metric tons in 2000. By 2002, the Philippines became one of Asia’s biggest importers, buying 1.14 million tons.

Tambalo noted that "four million hectares planted to palay in 2002 shrunk to 3.6 million hectares in 2004," citing figures of the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics. This comes to him as no surprise.

"Farmers I’ve recently talked to are not going to plant rice in the coming cropping season because of the high cost of inputs and the lower priced imports sold in local markets," he added.

It’s a viciously deepening situation of decreasing production and rising importation, and help is nowhere in sight. The foremost local food agency, the National Food Authority (NFA), has hardly been of help to farmers.

"Offering only P10 per kilo of palay as against the traders’ P12-13, farmers have little choice but sell to commercial rice merchants," Tambalo noted.

In turn, this has given great power to traders and landlords over the years, allowing them to control almost all sections of the industry from extending loans to farmers for the needed inputs to controlling market prices.

Budgetary constraints imposed on the NFA reflect an alarming lack of concern for long-term food security. Last year, it bought a measly 10-20 percent of local palay or around 300,000 metric tons out of the total 14,496,784 metric tons produced.

A common practice among small farmers, who own on average not more than three hectares, is to pawn the land they could not till. Tragically, their inability to raise enough money to redeem the pawned property allows this to revert back to landowners who typically convert these into subdivisions, memorial parks, resorts or fishponds.

Some agree to a system called porsyentuhan, which renders the farmers a tenant on their own land. Usually, they agree to 10 percent of the total harvest as rental for the use of their land. Others simply sell their land.

"Where will say, 10 cavans out of a 100-cavan harvest bring you?" said Tambalo. "Not very far, especially if you have three children who go to school or need medical help."

One measure introduced with much fanfare to mark the International Year of Rice in 2004 was the hybrid commercialization program of government.

Partly subsidizing costs, government sold at half the price, hybrid "Gloria rice" seedlings, so named after President Arroyo. It only produced 50 percent of the promised yield, a dark sign for government’s goals of self-sufficiency in rice.

Later on, government again pushed the seeds, this time for free. The only condition was to affix one’s signature. "Farmers availed of the seeds but fed it to their chickens and hogs," Tambalo recounted. This was about all the usefulness that farmers were able to squeeze out of the government program on rice seedlings.

Lessons from inappropriate technologies like these inspire Tambalo’s work on promoting sustainable agriculture as the more strategic answer to the country’s ailing rice industry. He admits that the road is still uphill in convincing farmers to try their hand at organic farming, but an increasing number are finding out the lower costs and hardier crops that it brings.

Rice Watch Action Networks reported that a farmer can save up to P12,000 per cropping season using sustainable agriculture methods.

Last April, onions pegged at P15 per kilo, the highest in years, because onions were in short supply and was out of the ordinary.

Sadoy recalled from previous years that onions have been flooding the local markets, causing farmgate prices to drop steeply.

In 2002, as supply rose, farmers could not sell their onions higher than P3 per kilo. No way could farmers recover their investments in seeds alone, and other inputs from fertilizers and herbicides to farm labor costs throughout the duration of the planting cycle.

Now Sadoy, a parent to five children, and her husband have had to double efforts at planting other vegetables like pepper, cabbages and beans to augment the family income.

Many farmers then simply threw away their produce. Others traveled as far as the Visayas and Bicol regions to find buyers, rather than see their onions rot.

One option would have been to put the onions in cold storage, then wait for demand to rise and prices to improve. But this is not a privilege open to most poor farming families who are often already heavily indebted by harvest time. "There is little choice," said Sadoy, "but sell your onions at prices set by traders. Eventually, they get to control the supply and the market prices."

From the late 90’s onwards, this experience was shared throughout the onion-growing towns of Bongabon, Laur, Gabaldon and San Jose.

Sadoy confirmed that farmers have not been able to enjoy better onion prices since 1998-99, at around the same time that government decided to solve a shortage in onions by allowing importation.

Unabated smuggling added to the onion growers’ bane. In 2004, about 500 tons of yellow onions entered the country illegally. Another shipment of 200 tons was in transit to the Manila South Harbor.

"Local producers, who depend on so many expensive imported farm inputs, from seeds to herbicides, simply cannot compete with the prices of onions from abroad," said Sadoy.

Subsidies extended by other governments to their producers explain why Chinese onions can go as low as P2.50 per kilo and Holland onions at P4, as compared to locally produced onions with farmgate prices of P16-17 a kilo.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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