Alcala rejoinder to Cruz’s June 22 column
(The Philippine Star) - July 2, 2014 - 12:00am

Please allow me to provide you with a few facts that may help to put your column in the Philippine STAR on June 22, 2014, in a better perspective:

You state that rice sufficiency has been a goal of every administration since the 1950s. Just because this administration took this goal seriously in the last four years is not a bad thing.

I hope you have been informed that because we took this goal seriously, we improved the country’s rice sufficiency from 82% in 2008 to 96% by 2013 (using the formula of the Food and Agriculture Organization). Of course, we set a higher target, but not achieving it in full cannot be considered serious ineptitude in the light of what we achieved: the country’s rice production in 2012 and 2013 has been the highest in the Philippines’ farming history — yes, despite all the storms that hit us, particularly Sendong that hit the rice lands of Central Luzon. By the way, the Philippines ranked second in rice production growth in 2013, next only to India (based on the US Department of Agriculture Grains Report).

Managing the country’s rice supply, as you would concede, is not simple particularly with powerful players in and out of government. As we were aiming for the goal for rice sufficiency over many years, there was the reality of rice smuggling and over importing that led to huge profits but also rotten rice in the warehouses that also created the general notion that NFA rice is poor quality rice.

You may know that rice imports in 2008 was at 2.4 million metric tons. We reduced this each year and we were down to 800,000 metric tons by 2013. In terms of pesos, reduction in the rice import bill amounted to some P147 billion since 2011 when compared to the average value of rice imports from 2008 to 2010. We directed NFA to focus on local procurement, particularly the underserved areas where buying prices are often depressed.

You are concerned about consumers who have to pay more for the rice they buy.

Please know that the price of NFA rice has remained the same. The well milled rice is bought by other consumers who may not be the target consumers for NFA rice. Some Metro Manilans who buy NFA rice are not intended consumers of NFA rice but they deprive the real target groups of supply. For this reason, we cooperate with DSWD to improve targeting.

You accuse me of the greatest sin of omission. I think that this is unfair. I invite you to ask our palay farmers, our onion farmers, our corn farmers, our livestock raisers, even our garlic farmers. They will tell you that this is one administration that considered them real partners in feeding our fellow Filipinos. Our achievement to date, is not just due to the Department of Agriculture. It is, primarily, due to our farmers who believed in government and cooperated with us.

Despite the farmers’ early misgivings when we stopped the distribution of the scandal ridden free seeds and fertilizers, they saw the wisdom in redirecting public investment in irrigation, concrete farm-to-market roads that do not disappear after a flood, farm machinery, like combine harvesters, that allowed them to harvest quickly and beat a coming typhoon. We recognized our irrigators’ associations, we engaged them in dialogs and identified areas that needed immediate works.

For example, the l0-year-old P2 billion dam project in Las Navas, Northern Samar, was servicing a mere 8 hectares when I visited in 2011. I found that the farms did not even have paddies, so how can they be irrigated? Together with the DSWD, we arranged for farmers to engage in paddy diking. The DSWD provided the cash-for-work scheme, the DA provided tools and tractors, the landless rural workers were trained in building pilapil, some of them even organized themselves into service providers. Today, some 800 hectares of rice land is planted in the service area of this dam.

System by system, we need to intervene. Over the years, budgets were chopped up to satisfy pressures coming from all sides. The inventory of unfinished projects is long. We slowly made the list shorter but could do only 81% of the NIA commitment for the Food Staples Sufficiency Program. As you realize, the bureaucracy is not a machine made of spare parts that get fixed as soon as you replace the busted part. Reform takes many skills and we welcome the help from Secretary Pangilinan to continue the system-by-system evaluation and help NIA deliver its targets in full.

Some people wish to simplify the issue and insist that the NFA was engaged in corruption. Let me point out that importations by NFA, in the last 17 months, have been conducted through international bidding. Some people like to compare the prices to world spot market prices — and forget to consider that spot market trading does not involve rice delivered to our warehouses. Others have made an issue of the bid price for hauling. This too was subject to international bidding. In fact, due to the strict observance of the procurement law, we purchased the last shipment of rice from Viet Nam at $ 437.75 per metric ton delivered to NFA warehouses, way below the estimated price of $ 477.28 per metric ton.

The NFA reform agenda has been submitted to the economic managers. Decisions need to be made. Likewise, some of us need to examine ourselves whether we have also given more weight to the claims of some groups without validating with those at the frontlines battling to set our system on the right path. “Bawal ang pangit,” is a call that the NFA Administrator Orlan Calayag (who served from January 2013 to May 2014) issued to the entire NFA to ensure that NFA rice is of good quality, primarily because the rice has been procured locally but also because imports are calibrated to be limited to what is needed.

You state: “Hopefully, we will finally witness a thorough cleansing of this agency and a more efficient and effective means of ensuring adequate rice supply and price stability.” I regret that you take off from the assumption that the NFA is corrupt. While I cannot guarantee that it is now 100% corruption free, I need you to know that over the last 17 months, the NFA has had the least graft-ridden operation in many, many years.

We welcome the help of Sec. Pangilinan and wish that the NFA reform agenda will finally be acted upon.

You are rightfully concerned about the scale insect infestation on our coconuts. Yes we are aware of this and the measures that will be enhanced with the coming of Secretary Pangilinan are welcome.

Coconut development, as you know, involves making the farmers participants in the growth and development of the industry. Coconut farmers in 12 sites in the country have been prepared to be part of the coconut agro-industrial hubs authorized by the economic cluster in January 2013 under the Program Management Office created under the DA-PCA. Through these hubs, farmers will be economic partners in the marketing of coconut-based, value-adding products other than copra. We are certain that Sec. Pangilinan would be happy to pursue this effort once the budget is released.

Local production and import dependence

Upon assuming office in 2010, we noted the high dependence of the Philippines on imported produce that we have traditionally grown in our farms like onions; garlic, pepper, mongo, peanuts, tamarind for our favorite sinigang and even salt. In dialogs with distributors and vendors of these products, they informed that importation was their only option as there was not enough of these locally. The vendors indicated readiness to buy locally if these are available. This started our interventions on these products.

Before we take up garlic, I invite you to look into what we have done for our onion farmers. When we assumed office in 2010, onion farmers were ready to give up. Prices of imported onion were low and they were being eased out of operation.

The onion story

The farm gate price of onions dropped drastically from an average of P44 per kg in 2008, to P36 per kg in 2009 to P26 per kg by 2010. This discouraged onion farmers from continuing to plant. It was then that the DA intervened with support for planting materials and post-harvest facilities to encourage onion farmers to continue planting. As a result, onion area harvested slowly increased again from 14,641 hectares in 2011 to 15,415 hectares by 2013. Consequently, production volume increased from 128,387 metric tons in 2011 to 134,161 metric tons by 2013. Onion farmers who continued to plant had their best years in 2011 and 2012 when onion farmgate prices rose to P52 to P55 per kilogram although this has gone down to P37 per kg by 2013.

The stakeholders’ experience in addressing the situation of the industry led to their organizing the National Onion Action Team (NOAT) composed of onion farmers, local government units, onion traders, cold storage owners. This group served as a consultative body of the National Agriculture and Fishery Council (now the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fishery) providing a venue for reaching a consensus among themselves on what is best for the industry and fair to all stakeholders.

The garlic story

The DA planned to repeat the onion story for garlic. In 2011, farmgate price of local garlic rose to a record high of PI08 per kilogram. Garlic farmers were selling all their produce including what they would have used as planting materials to cash in on the high prices. Planting materials were depleted.

The DA collaborated with the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) to develop and produce improved garlic planting materials through tissue culture using the facilities of the university. This step revived a previous effort of the university which fizzled out with farmers getting out of garlic farming. Aside from the partnership with MMSU, the DA provided support through improved planting materials and the opening of production areas such as those in Oriental Mindoro and in Miag-ao ang Igbaras in Iloilo. We also connected garlic growers in the Ilocos, Batanes, Nueva Vizcaya to markets — for the first time, local garlic is reaching Metro Manila and even areas like Basilan.

Learning from the onion experience, garlic stakeholders formed the National Garlic Action Team (NGAT) to address industry issues particularly how to survive in a domestic market that is predominantly supplied through imports.

While garlic is an agriculture produce, the country has depended largely on imports to provide for the country’s requirements. Boosting local production is not easy when farmers have been driven out of business for many years. The story repeats itself in various commodities that have suffered the same from the flooding of imports. And yet, the story of recovery is also rooted in engaging and supporting the farmers and distributors of the products through farming technologies and logistics improvement — interventions that have not received much attention for many years.

I respect your opinion, Mr Cruz, if you sincerely believe that Sec. Pangilinan can do a good job not only in the four agencies transferred to the Office of the President but to run the entire Department of Agriculture. However, I believe this decision belongs to the President, who, I fully trust, has a more complete assessment of the results on the ground and who respects the farmers and fishers whom we have served in the last four years.

You are most welcome, Mr. Cruz, to visit our office should you wish to be further informed about the reforms we have initiated in the Department of Agriculture. I still am the “probinsiyano” you cited in your column. I may not speak the language of your more familiar technocrats, but I have engaged the agriculture stakeholders intensely in effective ongoing programs and moved the DA bureaucracy to do likewise.

The farmers and fishers are the secret behind our record production of palay and corn. They are our cooperators in rebuilding the Yolanda areas where farmers have been able to harvest food staples. They are our supporters when we successfully enforced closed seasons to regenerate our fishery resources. They are our partners, commodity by commodity, area by area, and I am committed to serve them. — PROCESO J. ALCALA, Secretary, Department of Agriculture

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