Nothing has changed nearly seven years after the government sounded the alarm that Filipino farmers are aging and the youth are not interested to go into agriculture. The current average age of Filipino farmers is 57 years old, prompting some lawmakers to call farming a “dying profession.” Who can blame those who are not keen on tilling the land? Farming in the Philippines is usually a backbreaking work that offers little reward.
Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority will attest to the difficulties faced by farmers. In a report released in June 2017, the PSA disclosed that the farming sector consistently topped the list with the highest poverty incidence. The poverty incidence among farmers in 2015 was at 34.3 percent. Prior to the release of the 2017 data, agriculture (next to fisheries) also posted the highest poverty incidence in 2006, 2009 and 2012.
Apart from the unwillingness of the young generation to go into farming, those who stayed are now being driven away from the sector by inadequate or bad government policies. Take the case of the tobacco farmers in the Ilocos region. While there is evidence that the increase in excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol (or “sin” taxes) slashed the cigarette consumption of Filipinos, it also caused 12,000 farmers to stop planting the crop (See, “‘Sin’ tax forces farmers to give up tobacco,” in the BusinessMirror, March 25, 2019).
Of the 12,000 farmers who stopped planting tobacco, industry data indicated that 2,300 planters left the agriculture sector for good. The data, however, did not indicate the alternative livelihood of these farmers. Some of those who stopped planting tobacco shifted to corn, which is more suitable for the Ilocos region. How long will they plant corn is anybody’s guess because the crop is not as profitable as tobacco.
This could also happen to sugar farmers if the government succeeds in further opening up the sector in its bid to rein in inflation. Thousands of small planters would stop planting sugarcane once the government allows the unimpeded entry of imported sugar (via tariff reduction or removal of nontariff barriers). Farm workers or sacadas are already leaving the sector in droves and are taking on construction jobs that pay higher. Unfortunately for sugarcane farmers, funds allocated by the government to improve their competitiveness are much smaller than those given to the tobacco sector.
If the government is not careful in implementing the rice trade liberalization law, planters may follow the lead of those who have left the tobacco sector. Republic Act 11203 calls for the establishment of the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, which consist of tariffs collected from imports. The P10-billion RCEF would bankroll programs aimed at cushioning the impact of more rice imports. But the fund is an initiative that should have been put in place while Congress worked on amending RA 8148, or the Agricultural Tarrification Act.
The same goes for the rice industry road map, which details the strategies that would help ensure the sector’s survival in light of the expected influx of cheap imports. The rationale for the crafting of the road map only after the rice trade liberalization measure has been enacted remains unclear. It is akin to letting soldiers go to battle sans the necessary artillery and equipment.
Let’s hope that these lapses will not cause significant harm to the country’s food production. Even then, unless the government can find a way to produce crops and other foodstuff without human labor, the exodus of Filipino planters will remain a big threat to the country’s food security.