In his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Duterte urged lawmakers to pass the National Land Use Act (NLUA) and a law to establish the Coconut Farmers’ Trust Fund – both bills that have been stuck in the Congress for years.

Just like in the previous year, he called for the passage of the Coco Levy Trust Fund in his 2019 SONA despite vetoing it in February of the same year. This is also the 4th time that he asked for the Congress to pass the NLUA, which passage into law is also long overdue. It had been stalled for years while massive land conversions take place.

Likewise, the only mentioned campaigns for the agricultural sector is the Plant, Plant, Plant Program and the P66-billion stimulus package under the Rural Agricultural and Fisheries Development Financing System Act. The Rural Agricultural and Fisheries Development Financing System Act, which aims to amend the purpose of the AGRI-AGRA Credit Law of 2009, will establish an enhanced financing system to provide loans, grants, and investments to farmers and fisher folk. Other than these, the President did not discuss a specific framework or courses of action for recovery and development of the agriculture sector.

During this time of the pandemic, the farmers, landless farm workers, and fisher folk, need timely assistance more than ever. Those in the agricultural sector have remained the poorest in the country for so long. Even before the pandemic, our farmers and fisher folk are already facing hardships and their sector has been severely overlooked. Their situation has also been worsened by neo-liberal policies being put in place. Just like the recent situation with our rice farmers who have been affected by the Rice Tariffication Law – they still haven’t recovered from the low palay prices and the losses brought by drought when the pandemic hit. The flow of local produce from farms to markets has also been affected by supply chain disruptions during the stringent lockdown. With the restricted mobility of agricultural goods diminished, tons of produce – mostly fruits and vegetables – were left to waste, incurring farmers with losses.

Though the Department of Agriculture (DA) has been placing efforts to provide farmers with assistance, there are still incongruity in the some of the programs that get underway. For some reasons, farmers also faced difficulties in availing assistance.

To be a qualified beneficiary in the cash assistance program Financial Subsidy to Rice Farmers (FSRF), farmers must be registered under the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA). However, there farmers that are still unable to register themselves to be qualified to receive cash assistance. The complicated process of registration had hindered some rice farmers in being included in the registry system. The FSRF is an emergency cash assistance under the Social Amelioration Programs (SAP) of the DA. The agency also had a “Buy 2, Take 2” scheme in giving out fertilizers to farmers where DA gave farmers two free bags of urea fertilizer for every hectare of rice land. However, the two free bags can only be availed by those farmers who have received palay seeds under the Rice Resiliency Project. This arrangement imposed a condition that only a select number of farmers can benefit from.

While the provision of cash assistance and inputs are greatly beneficial, we must look into ways on how to make farmers’ livelihoods more sustainable. Gathering vital information on different regions is crucial to attain this. Different areas have different food types grown, geography, and agroecosystems – needing different variation of programs. This is why programs that are put into place must be backed with data, especially in the local and municipal level. There had been misplaced programs due to the lack of consultation with farmers and stakeholders.

It is time to adapt an integrated or holistic approach in agricultural development. Community organizing and capacity building in communities are key components needed to achieve this. Before the government implement programs, they should focus on rural community development first. This approach can also be instrumental in creating livelihoods in the rural areas especially for those who are displaced from the cities due to the pandemic. Rural community development can ensure that these people can have income and livelihood.

Another example is in the utilization of Coco Levy funds – instead of massive replanting, the focus can be on community development programs to be established in coconut growing communities. They can organize capacity building for farmers and value-adding for coconuts. Besides, the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) already has an existing inter-cropping and replanting program.

The government also distributed seeds to households to encourage them to plant their own food during the lockdown. The DA municipal offices could encourage farmers to start seed banks in their communities, and in turn, they will buy the seeds from them instead of procuring from seed companies. This will serve as an additional income to the farmers and will also make seeds readily available within the area.

In the case of rice, LGUs and local National Food Authority (NFA) offices can enter into a memorandum of agreement with private millers and warehouses to be able to accommodate more farmers trying to sell palay to them. Last year, the lack of space in their warehouses has limited them from buying more from farmers.

It is also critical to rehabilitate supply chains. Since the movement of agricultural products has been limited during the lockdown, establishing trading centers and postharvest facilities to strategic areas could greatly help both farmers and consumers through direct marketing. Farmers can ensure that they can sell their harvest while consumers can have access to cheaper food. This has been demonstrated in some areas in the country already due to the need to supply food in urban areas during the lockdown. Adapting this into a stable system of marketing would guarantee greater access to available food.

The pandemic did not only pose threats to our health, but also, in a way, become threat to our food security. However, this threat can be transformed into an opportunity to make our country, especially the food-producing population, resilient and stronger through forward-looking reform measures. It can also be an opportunity to explore a greater emphasis on food sovereignty.

We must not rely on imports, especially our staple, because exporting countries, like Thailand and Vietnam, face problems too (drought due to China’s control of the Mekong River and climate change). They could limit rice exportation again if they want to prioritize their local consumption. Industry stakeholders and advocates have feared that problems in the traditional sources of the country’s rice imports might arise at some point. Any major shortfall in rice production from any of the major sources of rice imports is likely to hurt the Philippines.

Focusing on building the resilience of our agriculture sector in recovery plans and development frameworks is paramount especially now in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. Food and agriculture policies should also point towards the likes of regulation of importation and prevention of land conversion. Moreover, in the long-run, the country should strive for the industrialization of our agriculture.

Our food and agricultural systems are vulnerable and its weaknesses have been bared and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative that the existing food and agricultural systems in place be transformed. Recovery measures in medium and long term should not only address the impacts of the pandemic, but also the underlying weaknesses in the systems. Adapting an integrated approach in formulating programs and focusing on rural community development is necessary in making communities resilient and sustainable.