A PARTY-LIST legislator representing farmers said workers in the agricultural sector were not given sufficient priority for food aid and other assistance, while allied businesses were not granted frontliner exemptions, putting the entire sector at risk.

Medyo hindi yata napaghandaan nang husto itong COVID-19. Kailangan kasing mapag-aralan natin na hindi lang naman ‘yung farmers ang dapat na frontliners dito eh, maraming nakapaligid diyan na mga industries, small businesses (The preparations for COVID-19 were inadequate; the frontliners were not just farmers but also many other allied industries and small businesses) that should continue to operate despite the lockdown,” Magsasaka Party-List Rep. Argel Joseph T. Cabatbat said in a group video chat Tuesday.

Mr. Cabatbat said that farmers from Northern Luzon are having “a hard time” selling their produce because of the quarantine, while others have not received government aid yet.

“During our visits to some markets in Northern Luzon, we were able to receive some reports that our farmers are having a hard time selling their produce. May mga reports tayo, particularly dito sa Nueva Ecija, may mga barangay diyan na isang beses na lang kumain ’yung mga tao (In some barangays in Nueva Ecija people are down to one meal a day). So this should really be addressed. This only shows na hindi pa talaga effective… ang pag distribute ng aid (aid distribution has been ineffective) particularly to our farmers,” he said.

Mr. Cabatbat said that about P230 billion worth of funding for the Department of Agriculture (DA) is needed to rejuvenate the industry.

“Before COVID, I was meeting with (DA Undersecretary Ariel T.) Cayanan and we arrived at a reasonable amount (for) the DA in order for the department to deliver on its promises in rejuvenating agriculture. And nakikita naming budget nasa P230 billion. Maliit pa nga ito pero syempre kailangan naman natin i-consider ang pangangailangan ng ibang departamento (Our estimate came to P230 billion, and this amount is tempered by the need to fund other departments),” he said.

He added that the P31 billion supplemental budget that was approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Disease to increase food sufficiency is “welcome,” but said that the release of such funds should be fast-tracked.

“So this P31 billion supplemental budget… is welcome. We are happy the DA is being given priority in terms of allocation of funds but I am alarmed because only P8.5 billion has been secured so far. Medyo nababagalan tayo sa pag-release ng pondo. Ang agriculture kasi hindi mo naman ’yan nade-delay eh (The funding release has been slow, but agriculture cannot wait),” he said.

Mr. Cabatbat said the goal should be achieving “food sovereignty” instead of food security by supporting domestic farmers.

Mr. Cabatbat said that he will propose amendments to the economic stimulus bill which is still pending in the House of Representatives

“Only P10 billion will be granted to agri-fishery enterprises (compared to the allocation for micro, small and medium enterprises) which is P25 billion. Kung merong classification na ito, ibig sabihin, even if you are engaged in agriculture and you are considered MSME, baka hindi ka maka-access sa P25 billion, du‘n ka lang sa P10 billion. Taliwas ito sa pinaglalaban natin na mas kailangan ng agriculture ngayon ng pera. (It means farm businesses have to share less money even if they are classified as MSMEs… It runs counter to our contention that agriculture needs the funding more) We will be proposing amendments to this bill,” he said.

The latest draft of the economic stimulus bill in the House of Representatives proposes to inject between P1.3 trillion and P1.4 trillion in the first year of the intervention period of 2020–2022 to help workers and businesses deal with the effects of COVID-19. — Genshen L. Espedido