MANILA - Prices of basic commodities such as rice and garlic have gone up. Scale insects, locally known as "cocolisap," have also destroyed millions of coconut trees. These are some of the major problems the Department of Agriculture is facing.
For the first time, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, in an interview with ABS-CBN, apologized for the government's failure to reach its target of self-sufficiency in rice supply.
Still, despite the failure and the continued sufferings of Filipino farmers, President Aquino doesn't want to sack Alcala.
A FARMER'S LIFE
Baldomero Badua has been a farmer all his life in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija. He is now 74 and once suffered a stroke. He still dreams of having a good life from farming.
He complains of the rising prices of fertilizer and lack of government incentives. His farm earnings, he said, are just enough to pay for his production bills every harvest season.
He has 13 children and none of them went to college.
"Eh wala. Iyan ang swerte natin. Tuloy ang saka pero wala naman tulong ang gobyerno, eh. Mahinang umasenso," Badua said.
"Sa aming mga mahihirap, masakit sa kalooban namin iyun mahihirap na nga kami, pinapatay pa kami," said his wife, Adelaida. "Eh bakit nga 'di kami papatayin, hindi na kaya namin na mamuhunan."
In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2013, Aquino proudly announced that the country would be self-sufficient in rice supply.
"Ang pagpapalakas naman sa sektor ng agrikultura, natupad din. Ngayong 2013, ang pinakasagad na nating aangkatin, kasama na ang pribadong sektor, ay ang minimum access volume na 350,000 metric tons/dahil on-target pa rin tayo sa rice self-sufficiency, hindi na rin kailangan pang mag-angkat ang pribadong sektor," he said.
Until now, his promise has yet to materialize.
The government imported 705,500 metric tons of rice in 2013.
As of today, the government has imported some 800,000 metric tons and is still in the process of importing 200,000 metric tons more to beef up its buffer stock.
In all, this year's rice importation would reach the 2-million metric-ton mark.
"Ako po ay humihingi ng paumanhin. Hindi ko po ito narating ngunit although ganoon po, ang narating po natin after 2013 ay 96 percent. From 82 to 96 percent. Alam niyo po ba kung magkano ang na-save ng ating bansa? P147 billion," Alcala said.
"If you talk to a lot of agricultural economists, hindi nila nire-recommend iyung self sufficiency, kasi alam naman natin na mas mahal ang mag produce ng bigas dito kumpara halimbawa sa Vietnam o Cambodia o Thailand," said economist Ben Diokno.
"Kung maabot man, napakalaki ng gastos natin. Mas mataas ang presyo babayaran ng mamimili or mas malaking subsidiya so napakahirap nu'n. Maglagay tayo sapat protection sa domestic rice sector. Huwag na tayo humangad pa ng 100 percent," said Philippine Institute for Development Studies economist Roehlano Briones.
Party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares can't help ask, why did rice prices go up, if indeed the country had enough rice supply?
"Kasi ang proof niyan, may sinungaling sa SONA. Sinabi mo na we're on the way to rice self-sufficiency tapos nang tumaas ang presyo ng bigas sinabi pa rin ng gobyerno na rice self-sufficient tayo. So, paano tataas ang presyo ng bigas kung lean months kung self-sufficient ka nga pala?" Colmenares said.
President Aquino gave the public a rather vague reply.
"I guess it is not the vast majority that is getting affected dahil nga hindi lahat nagko-consume, ang explanation sa akin, 'nung well-milled," he said.
"Ang sabi ng NFA, ang kanilang share sa market is only 12 percent, so ibig sabihin, ang 88 percent ay bumibili ng commercial rice. So hindi puwedeng sabihin ni President Aquino na hindi naman apektado ang buong bansa," Colmenares said. "That's the worst thing you can say in the midst of overpricing of rice. I'm sure a lot of hoarders and price manipulators were happy with that."
OTHER BURNING ISSUES
Aside from problems involving rice, there are other burning issues surrounding agriculture. These include rising prices of garlic, as well as smuggling.
Things could have been different if the government did what the law requires it to do.
"Dapat ginawa nila nung panahon meron tayong suggested retail price. Kung mas mataas ka diyan huhulihin ka," said Ernesto Ordonez, chairman of Alyansa Agrikultura/Agri-Watch.
"Minsan kasi, ang problem ng ating mga pinasa na law parang walang nagtuturo, parang di na-realize ng mga agency they are supposed to create a consumer protection group that they can investigate, they can suggest an SRP," said Senator Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture.
Coconut farmers are still fighting to save their plantations against "cocolisap."
It took the government two years to take a pro-active stance. The insects have damaged millions of trees.
"Ikaw Mr. Secretary, you are 3 years late and you are 250,00 trees late," said coconut farmer Paquito Lirio. "Ang tingin ko, sinasarili lang ni Alcala para siya mapuri lamang. Ang gusto lamang niyang i-report sa Presidente ay yung ikatutuwa ng Presidente."
"Nung madiskubre po namin ang mutation eh wala pong 100 percent agad na kasagutan," Alcala said. "Even all the scientists po sa buong bansa ay tinawagan po natin. Hindi rin po ito agad nasagutan ng isang kisapmata."
Some industry leaders in agriculture think President Aquino might have succeeded in abating, if not totally eliminating certain cases of anomalies in the agriculture department, particularly in irrigation.
However, reveal that the target growth for the sector has not been achieved. In fact, the number is way below the target during the last four years of the Aquino administration.
The sector has only registered a 1.1 percent growth, against a 3.7-percent target as detailed in the Medium Term Development Plan.
"Hhindi puwedeng sabihin na maganda ang patakbo ng agrikultura," Ordonez said. "Ang hinihingi po nating matagal ang roadmap, ang agriculture maski isa na maganda wala pang isinasubmit sa economic team."
Alcala has again promised to do better in the next two years, this time by lending new capital to farmers under the "Sikat Saka Program at Farm Mechanization."
But some farmers are looking at it with skepticism.
They said they have been promised the same thing through the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund in time for the ASEAN economic integration in 2015.
The government has yet to keep its promise.
"Kawawa namin kami sana makuha na namin at magamit sa aming negosyo," duck grower Myles Guillermo said.
LEAVING FOR OVERSEAS
For agriculture graduate Jonalyn Cabauatan of Nueva Ecija, it is best no to rely on the government.
She has gone to Japan to work as a farmer.
"Mahirap kasi ang magsasaka dito eh. Unang-una napakamahal ng pataba atsaka ang ginagawa lang namin inuutang iyung puhunan tapos pag umani, lugi ka pa. Kaya ang pagsasaka dito, hindi kadaling umunlad gaya sa ibang bansa," she said.
After three years in Japan, Jonalyn has built a new house, bought a car, a tricycle, and a farm of her own.
But if the next generation of farmers like Jonalyn are to go abroad to seek greener pastures, the country would have difficulty restoring itself as a leading rice producer in the world.
Only an aging farmer like Baldomero Badua would be around to plant rice.
The Philippines becoming a leading rice producer has suddenly become a pipe dream.