Everyone recognizes the vital role of rice farmers or the agriculture sector in general in the economy of the Philippines. It goes without saying that rice, being the staple food of Filipinos, should be a priority of the government, and ensuring that the supply meets the demand is a critical task.
We have all heard about the plans and programs of the government in ensuring there is enough supply of rice in the country, and we have witnessed the numerous programs of the Department of Agriculture from administration to administration. Unfortunately, issues continue to plague rice production in the Philippines, from allegations of hoarding to persisting gaps in local supply to questionable market and labor practices in the industry. Lately, and in Palawan in particular, the perennial problem of the poor magsasaka in the countryside, the one who starts the production chain, was thrown into the spotlight again.
In Palawan, the town of Narra is the rice granary, producing the highest yield of rice supply in the province. However, ‘highest’ and ‘abundance’ are adjectives that you will be hard-pressed to associate with the plight of farmers in the area, many of whom remaining in the bondage of poverty. “Bayad, utang” is the kind of life the rice farmers have. Here’s a fact probably as old as your great, great grandfathers: most local farmers remain at the mercy of “middlemen” who dictate the prices of palay (un-milled rice) per kilo.
We do not discount the support being provided by local government units in addition to the program of the Department of Agriculture, and we do understand the problem can be a lot more complex than it seems. Yet, after decades of seeing this issue, one develops a frustration to know: wherein lies the solution? When do farmers, especially the smallholder ones, stop getting the shorter end of the stick?
Is it really supply and demand at play, or a very serious issue of cartel? Is it the stubborn insistence of farmers against new technology, like crop rotation and organic farming, or the cyclic issue of injustice?
The solution to the farmers’ debt-ridden plight is long overdue. The National Food Authority, being a frontline agency in ensuring national food security and stabilization of prices for staple food like rice, can play an important role in addressing the prices of unpolished rice in the province. After all, it is among the roles of the NFA to warrant the reasonable rate of return to Filipino farmers and provide adequate supply and affordable rice.
Now is the time to step forward and seriously evaluate the realities on the ground.