HOUSE Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez has assured the commitment of the House of Representatives to pass a stimulus package to help farmers and fishermen recover from the coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Romualdez, the co-chairman of the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, said the House of Representatives adopted House Resolution (HR) No. 925 affirming its commitment to pass a P66-billion supplemental budget for the Department of Agriculture (DA) for the recovery of the agriculture and fisheries sector from the havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is our response to the call of President Duterte for Congress to push for the passage of a stimulus package for Philippine farms,” said Romualdez, recalling that HR 925 was passed by the House of Representatives just two days after President Duterte delivered his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA).
In his speech, Mr. Duterte championed the DA’s ‘Plant, Plant, Plant” program and sought congressional approval of “this P66-billion agricultural stimulus package (that) will help the agriculture and fisheries sector recover” from the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
The resolution was authored by Romualdez, Cayetano, Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte Jr., and Representatives Lucy Torres-Gomez of Leyte and Florida Robes of San Jose Del Monte City.
HR 925 expressed “the commitment of the House of Representatives to enact the proposed P66-billion supplemental budget of the DA to support its programs in addressing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in the areas of food and nutrition, security and price stability.”
HR 925 was endorsed on the floor by the Defeat Covid-19 Ad Hoc Committee (DCC) chaired by Cayetano and co-chaired by Romualdez, as a substitute bill to HR 821 introduced by Robes.
Almost three months ago, Villafuerte pushed a “re-prioritization” of the proposed 2021 General Appropriations Act (GAA), with a hefty part of the annual budget going not only to infrastructure and social services but also to agricultural development—“with the long-term goal of attaining sufficiency in rice and other basic foodstuff in the post-pandemic scenario.”
“Alongside ‘Build, Build, Build,’ the Duterte administration needs to likewise put ‘Plant, Plant, Plant’ on the front burner to best prepare the country for the ‘new normal’ once the pandemic spawned by the lethal Covid-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) has been contained,” Villafuerte, the deputy speaker for finance and a former vice chairman of the House committee on appropriations, said last May.
The Camarines Sur representative said that, “While rebooting the President’s centerpiece infrastructure modernization program would enable the economy to stage a quick recovery as soon as the pandemic is over, giving top priority as well to agriculture development would boost farm output that would, hopefully, make the Philippines self-sufficient in rice and other basic foodstuff in the long run.”
Villafuerte co-chairs with Torres-Gomez the DCC’s social amelioration cluster, which approved HR 821 last May in support of the DA’s supplemental budget for its food supply availability and price stabilization programs.
DCC’s social amelioration cluster backed HR 821 authored by Robes, subject to amendments proposed by Quezon Rep. Wilfrido Mark Enverga, who chairs the House committee on agriculture and food.
HR 821 was subsequently substituted by HR 925.
According to HR 925, the COVID-19 pandemic has “wreaked havoc to the already volatile and challenging area of food security globally, including the Philippines, and with it the urgent need to act with haste to avoid reduced food security, decreased nutrition and higher food prices.”
HR 925 stressed the need for a stimulus program for the farm sector as “the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to worsen the hunger and malnutrition situation with the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and variants thereof, and the concomitant economic fallout.”
It noted that the DA has proposed the allocation of a supplemental outlay of P66 billion as a stimulus package “to ensure food security, food supply availability, and price stability” through three key initiatives, namely:
• P31 billion for its ALPAS (Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat) Kontra sa COVID-19 Program to raise agricultural productivity while ensuring food sufficiency through rice buffer stocking, steady food supply at stable prices through the upscaling of the "Kadiwani Ani at Kita" or the rolling of food stores all over Metro Manila, in partnership with the local chief executives, and the promotion of urban agriculture in Metro Manila and in major cities;
• P20 billion for its Food Logistics Plan to make sure that agricultural commodities are accessible and affordable by strengthening the food logistics projects, price monitoring and enforcement system, extension support to provincial local government units (LGUs); and,
• P15 billion for the Cash-for-Work Program (C4W) to assist landless farmers and displaced workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Villafuerte pointed out that, “If there is one thing that the ongoing global health crisis has taught us this early, is the primacy of self-sufficiency as countries isolate themselves and shutter their businesses in a frantic bid to prevent the spread of a highly infectious pathogen that has sickened almost two million people and killed over 123,000 across the globe.”
Although it might be easier and even cheaper to just import rice and other prime agricultural products, Villafuerte said the tendency of certain countries to hold off on exports of their surplus commodities would work against the Philippines’ favor in the post-pandemic era.
In one disturbing development, Villafuerte recalled that Vietnam, which is the No. 1 source of the Philippines’ rice imports, bared plans in March to reduce or even put off exports of its surplus rice stocks, to guarantee enough supply for its people during the health crisis.
Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar are the Philippines’ main sources of imported rice, with Vietnam accounting for about two-thirds of such shipments.
Earlier reports claimed that Russia has planned to cut its grains shipments abroad to protect its own food security while Kazakhstan has also banned the overseas sale of its wheat flour, carrots, sugar and potatoes, Villafuerte said.
“What happens when the time comes after the pandemic when we might have all the money to import rice or other basic agricultural commodities, but there is nowhere to buy them?” he stressed.