Agri dep’t seeking to tap P66B from stimulus funds

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THE Department of Agriculture (DA) sought P66 billion worth of funding from Congress to bolster the rice supply, improve logistics, and provide emergency employment in response to the pandemic.

The DA said it is asking for P31 billion for the so-called Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Kontra sa COVID-19, a food-security initiative; P20 billion to improve logistics and food markets; and P15 billion for a cash-for-work program.

In a virtual hearing of the House committee on agriculture and food on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said that the “updated” ALPAS seeks to increase the rice buffer stock to 30 days from the current 15.

“The rice resiliency program with an earlier budget of P8.5 billion has been funded now by the national government and will be implemented during the wet season. So we are putting forward a program to continue with this rice resiliency for the dry season planting which is in October and November,” he said.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases recently approved P8.5 billion for the Rice Resiliency Project under the Plant, Plant, Plant program.

By the end of 2020, the DA’s rice resiliency project aims to boost palay production to 22.12 million metric tons (MT), which is equivalent to 13.51 million MT of rice after milling.

Mr. Dar assured the panel that the year-end rice inventory was good for about three months.

“We have enough rice, we are just finishing the dry season harvest and we are assuring the public that our outlook for rice for the year is positive… Hoping that we will continue to elevate our gain in terms of rice production and rice productivity,” he said.

Ngayon, nasa 87% (rice sufficiency) pa lang tayo. Ngayong nagpadagdag tayo ng budget na rice resiliency project for this season, that will bring us to 94% sa rice sufficiency. So meron pa tayong anim na porsyento. Kung tatanungin niyo na kung kaya natin maging 100%, technically yes (Right now, we are at 87% rice sufficiency. Now that we have the funding for rice resiliency this season, that will rise to 94%. That leaves us six percentage points away from 100% self-sufficiency, which is technically possible),” he added.

Mr. Dar said he is also open to review the Rice Tariffication Law or Republic Act 11203 once it hits two years from implementation.

Ako po ay, sabi ko palagi, pagbigyan natin ang batas. One year lang ang nakaraan. Ako after two years, pwedeng i-revisit. But as I have said, nasa power din ng House of Representatives na pwedeng i-revisit, ano pa yung i-strengthen (I have always said that the law must be given time to show results. It’s only been one year. We can revisit it after two years. But as I have said, the House has the power to revisit and even strengthen it),” he said.

The measure, enacted in February 2019, lifted the restrictions on rice imports but charged tariffs of 35% on Southeast Asian grain. The law effectively lowered rice prices for consumers but eroded farmer incomes.

He said that the P20-billion food logistics and markets component will ensure that farmers gain the ability to sell directly and benefit the most from their produce.

“We have to open up that concept of food markets where retail can also be done. We have to learn how food markets evolve in other countries so that we will get the best practices on how food markets are being managed and see to it that the farmers are getting the benefits. It should be a win-win for the producers, it should be a win-win for the consuming public,” he said.

The Cash for Work program can work alongside the Balik Probinsya, Balik Pag-Asa program which President Rodrigo R. Duterte established through Executive Order 114 to encourage urban residents and businesses to relocate to the provinces.

“We see to it that this would be also one mechanism for Balik Probinsya enrollees. Initial work can be provided for them so that they have enough cash to buy their basic requirements. We are ready if given the chance to start right away. We are realigning some of the budget of the department to now participate this early,” he said.

Mr. Dar also called on the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to consider exempting the DA from National Budget Circular No. 580 which states that 35% of the budget of government agencies will no longer be released.

“If we want to sustain and elevate food production, food productivity, we should be exempted from setting aside 35% of the budget for COVID pandemic. You know, in fighting the COVID pandemic, we also have to fight with nutritious food and sustained (supply). The threat of hunger is as important as the threat of COVID-19,” he said.

Mr. Dar said he will be submitting a formal letter to the DBM regarding this matter.

Wala pa kaming formal na sulat na galing sa kanila (The DBM has not notified the DA officially). I will formally submit a letter seeking immediate exemption, hindi yung tingi-tingi na exempt (and not seek exemptions piecemeal),” he said. — Genshen L. Espedido