- in Philippines
Filipino rice farmers tending to their fields. Photo from the Philippine News Agency.

The major defining feature of the House of Representatives’ version of the 2020 National Budget was P9 billion in institutional amendments redirecting vital funds to critical programs for vulnerable sectors of Philippine society. A third of all these allocation amendments were to support one specific program – purchasing palay from struggling rice farmers. But now, the House has found that the Senate version of the budget has eliminated the P3-B in additional aid meant for farmers in favor of other programs.

For context, P3 billion could have bought 150 million kilos of palay. The NFA offers P20 per kilo of dry palay and a lower price for wet palay. These funds would have gone to farmers who are struggling to find buyers for their products.

Under the version of the budget proposed by President Duterte through the Department of Budget and Management’s 2020 National Expenditure Program, rice farmers were given P7 billion through the National Food Authority (NFA)’s palay purchasing program. A special provision in the NEP states that the funds “shall be used for the implementation of the rice buffer stocking program… (the) buffer stock shall be sourced solely from local farmers.”

The House’s version of the budget proposed minimal changes to the NEP, most notably an augmentation of P3 billion to the NFA’s funds. This amendment was motivated by the obvious plight being faced by the country’s rice farmers, who are facing stiffer competition and lower gate prices for their goods.

Unfortunately, the hard work of the House to secure these crucial funding amounts for suffering farmers seems to be in danger. It is unclear why the Senate decided to completely remove the rice budget, when talk in the House of Representatives since the budget’s transmittal has actually been focused on finding more ways to further supplement the P3 billion.

The Senate’s version actually made significant changes to the actual allocation of the P4.1 trillion proposed national budget. The P3 billion taken away from farmers is actually just a minor piece of their overall amendments. Their version of the budget had total amendments amounting to a staggering P235 billion.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, a vice-chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, was one of the Representatives who found the disappointing change to the palay budget among what he described as the “P235 billion dagdag-bawas” of the Senate’s proposed budget.

It is yet unclear where the Senator’s put the P3 billion. In the meantime, the House is seeking new ways to help rice farmers deal with plummeting palay prices. Without the NFA’s budget for expanded market intervention, palay prices wouldn’t have additional support.

House members have vocally been expressing their dissatisfaction with the Senate’s decision, especially as there would be real consequences on the lives of rice farmers who could have benefitted from the additional budget.

Deputy Speaker Aurelio Gonzales Jr. of Pampanga said that Filipino farmers need the government to provide additional support, like cash subsidies, farm inputs, and equipment funding.

Deputy Speaker Mikee Romero of 1-Pacman partylist also urged the Department of Agriculture to pursue other means of supporting farmers, such as expediting the procurement of seeds and machineries funded under the P10-B rice competitiveness enhancement fund. Delaying the augmented budget to next year or beyond would not work – farmers work by cropping season. Now is actually a crucial time as farmers are currently prepping for the next quarter’s main cropping season.

However, if the Senate’s version of the budget should be followed, the DA and the NFA would need to make up for the scrapped augmentation through other programs that may not have the same immediate relief effect as palay purchasing.

Currently, farmers are facing extremely low prices for palay and are thus struggling to make a decent living.

As the country develops further in other industries like service and BPOs, other sectors like agriculture have lagged behind. The Children of farmers have not been immune to migratory trends leading them towards the “richer” opportunities in urban centers. Thus, the average age of the Filipino farmer is pushing closer and closer to what should be the years of retirement and younger generations are not taking up the profession of their parents. These vital services are the backbone of our nation. The food we eat would not be on our plates without the hard work of our farmers, so it is only fair that they too have full bellies and security for their futures.

Contingents of the House and Senate will be meeting for the bicameral conference seeking to reconcile the two versions of the 2020 National Budget. The conference is jointly chaired by Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab and Sen. Sonny Angara.

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