Thank you for inviting me to speak in this conference. It is always an honor for me to speak on the state of our agriculture, particularly of the agents of this sector that put the bounties on our table: our farmers and fishers.

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Agriculture is a compelling subject that has sent me on a journey to meet thousands of Filipinos in our countryside, and it has shared with me their simple and yet rich outlook on life. To the point that I myself ventured into farming: A small 5,000 square meter planted area in Alfonso, Cavite where I plant organic lettuce and herbs and I have my own native pigs and chickens. Farming has become so much more part of my life that my wife, who some of you may know, has become very jealous. She has protested that I have more pictures in my smartphone of the farm lettuce and our produce than her. So to solve that, the screensaver is a picture of her.

Levity aside, one way of viewing the state of our agriculture or I think a primary way of looking at our state of agriculture should be to look at the state of our farmers. The number one resource of any organization would be its people. And our farmers’ average income annually on agriculture is P23,000. That’s not even P2,000 a month. That is not a good state. It is not sustainable. It is not right and it is not just.

The people who produce our food should not be losing sleep, worrying how they are to feed their own families. And if farmers lack income for food, how then can our farmers afford other needs such as education or health care?

Moreover, the cultural shackles that bind our views on farmers as a society on agriculture only exacerbate these injustice. We call the lowest in our society, and this is in Filipino: ‘hampas lupa’ It’s actually pejorative. It is actually insulting when you call someone ‘hampaslupa’ or refer to something as ‘hampaslupa,’ it is actually insulting. But why is it insulting when ‘hampaslupa’s direct translation is to hit the soil, which is really to till the soil, which is really to farm. We also call those who do not succeed in life or at least in school in Filipino as ‘nangangamote.’ ‘Kamote’ is the sweet potato. So if you’re nangangamote, you’re planting sweet potato. Again, what is wrong in planting sweet potato? And why do you tell me that you are unsuccessful because you are ‘nangangamote.’ These are cultural aspects as to why agriculture in farming has not really developed in this country relative to how it has developed in ASEAN. Thailand is a net exporter of agricultural products the tune of something like almost 20 billion dollars. Vietnam would be anywhere to four to six billion dollars, net exporter. And the Philippines is a net importer of agricultural products to the tune of 2 billion dollares

Many of us look down on agricultural work in our society. Hence, our farmers, now with an average age of 56 years, ageing while their children, the next generation of Filipinos refuse to take up farming precisely because it means taking a vow of poverty, which is not right. If we are not able to secure a new generation of farmers and fisherfolk, how do we expect to secure our food.

Despite generating the 11.3% of our country’s GDP and 32 percent directly employed by agriculture, you put another 20 percent indirectly employed. Meaning, the pesticide industry, the fertilizer industry, the transport industry. It becomes nearly half of the country’s labor force is directly or indirectly employed by agriculture and agri-industry. If you want to move this nation forward and have sustainable economic growth, you must address the agriculture and agri-industry economy. There’s no going around them. Competitiveness is slipping, and our irrigation networks and farm-to-market roads, for example, need rehabilitation.

Clearly, we must respond to these challenges with a legislative agenda that does not only promote agriculture, but brings about sweeping changes that would make agriculture more profitable for our farmers, and more productive and empowering for our nation. One of the first ten bills we filed in the 17th Congress is called ‘Sagip Saka Bill.’

‘Sagip Saka’ is Tagalog for ‘Save Farming,’ I mean, the translation in English is ‘to save farming.’ This bill, among other things, intends to mandate that national and local government agencies should directly purchase agriculture and fishery products from accredited farm organizations and fisherfolk cooperatives, amending the procurement law. The procurement processes in the Philippines, some of you may be familiar, can take three to four to five months before it’s actually completed. What happens to your agricultural produce after three to five months? Obviously, it won’t work. The bill will also grant tax incentives to companies and private entities that purchase directly from our farmer and fisherfolk accredited organizations or will donate equipment, machinery, facility to these accredited farm organizations and such donations will be deductible in corporate income taxes By doing so, we prioritize support for our farmers. This will effectively increase the incomes of Filipinos in agriculture, and provide investment toward a more robust agriculture sector.

We have already tested the concept in a program we implemented in 2013, on the last year of my term as the chairman of the agriculture committee and as senator. One of the companies that partnered with us is actually a European company, Nestle.

In that particular partnership, we were able to double in over a year the average annual income of a number of coffee farmers in Surigao del Sur.

Under the program, our private partner provided three communities in Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, and Surigao del Sur with a total of 83,000 high yielding coffee seedlings, put up a nursery with a capacity of 20,000 seedlings in Bukidnon, provided an all-weather drier and post-harvest facility, distributed fertilizers, and conducted farmer education and technical and basic entrepreneurship training with local government partners. To help boost the farmers’ productivity, each participating community received P1 million from the Sagip Saka program from government.

Nestlé Philippines’ baseline data from Surigao del Sur show that some farmers posted an average annual income from coffee of P7,350 in 2014. In 2015, after initial implementation, these farmers started earning P14,224. This 2016, based on field forecast by technicians these farmers are expected to earn an income of P 28,500 with higher production compared to previous years. So in two years time, that’s 7,350 to 28,500.

The program and its namesake bill seek to achieve sustainable modern agriculture and food security by transforming agricultural communities to reach their full potential, improving farmers’ quality of life and bridging gaps through public-private partnerships.

The new coffee trees planted with the guidance and support of our private sector partner were said to yield 110% more than the old trees for some farmers, and we have drastically increased these farmers’ income by more than 100% in 2015.

Sagip Saka is meant to give agriculture and fisheries the primacy that it deserves by focusing on improving the quality of life of our farmers and fisherfolk and, in doing so, building sustainable farming communities nationwide as a means to achieve food security. And only through strong partnerships can we achieve this.

Another partnership apart from Nestle is with a local conglomerate: The Jollibee Foundation. We had this partnership in 2011. Jollibee Foundation had a partnership with an onion and rice and corn farm cooperative in Nueva Ecija, in San Jose City, Nueva Ecija. The Kalasag Farmers Cooperative. The arrangement was that Jollibee would buy 60 percent of the onions produced by these farmers organization. In 2008, when they started the partnership, the farmers’ organization produced 60 tons of onions. By 2011 when we came in, with Sagip Saka as a program, they were producing 240 tons of onions. Today, in 2015, we provided them with support in terms of cash allocation. We provided them support in terms of equipment. They had requested for a refrigerated van because one van trip, as they were renting, would cost them P17,000. And so they would rent this van to bring it to the cold storage facility. And they requested us for support, we were able to provide them in 2011. Today, they are hitting 500 metric tons only in a span of 7 years. So from 60 tons in 2008 to 500 tons in 2015, in partnership with the Jollibee Foundation. It is interesting to know that many of these farmers were able to, the term is ‘tubos’ in Filipino, the jewelry of their wives. They were able to redeem. There is this joke in Filipino, they now have hepatitis. Hepatitis is when you turn yellow and so all their jewelry are gold.
These farmers either have a motorcycle or a tricycle so the farmers have increased their land-planted area because other farmers decided to sell to them or to lease to them additional property. So you can imagine the net effect on the local economy when farmers’ income double or triple.

Aside from Sagip Saka, we also have a bill seeking to create the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources- in fact, we should have heard that this week but we had to postpone it to next week because many of those who would be speaking as resource persons are still in the ASEAN meeting. We have to separate the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources from the Department of Agriculture. This will allow us to better protect and manage the country’s marine resources.

Twenty percent of our national territory is land, and 80 percent is water. Yet the budget of the Department of Agriculture is the opposite- 80 percent goes to land, and not even 20 percent is dedicated to aquamarine resources. Obviously, this is not appropriate. This is not correct, and has to be corrected.

The Philippines is one of the largest fish producers in the world, contributing 17.65 percent to the country’s total agricultural output. Around 1.4 million Filipinos rely of fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihood.

The fisher folk are the poorest in the agriculture sector. They are even poorer than the coconut farmers. The poorest farmer is the coconut farmer earning P50 a day on copra, and you can imagine the fisher folk even poorer.

Coastal villages are among the poorest areas. The poverty incidence in coastal areas is 14 percent compared to the national average of 25 percent. This is a glaring discrepancy that needs to be addressed.

Creating a Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources aims to strategically develop and use the country’s marine resources and, at the same time, address poverty in the rural coastal areas. Elevating the current Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and beefing up its mandate and structure will ensure that the Department of Agriculture will be able to focus on production so that government’s resources will be fairly distributed and prioritized.

We also have the Food Bank Bill in the pipeline, and business sector should be able to contribute largely here in terms of crafting the measure. Inspired by the France, the bill seeks to shoot two birds with one stone. Number 1, to stop impoverished Filipinos from eating ‘garbage food,’ and number 2, to reduce food wastage.

They call it ‘pagpag.’ Pagpag is ‘to dust off’ in Filipino, or ‘to shake off,’ but it has come to mean food taken from garbage, dusted off by the poorest of the poor as a means to survive. According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology, every Filipino on the average wastes over 3 kilos of rice per year. Food waste are those left on one’s plate and become spoiled. Food is also wasted due to post-harvest losses due to absence of storage and transport facilities.

In 2008, the Philippines’ rice wastage was estimated at nearly 300,000 metric tons, or about 12 percent of our year’s imports. That is P7.3 billion worth of wastage. With this, more than 2 million Filipinos could have better nutrition. There’s something terribly wrong when on the one hand, food is so plenty that the excess is trashed or allowed to rot, while on the other hand, we have countrymen continue to be hungry.

Under the proposed Food Bank Law, grocery stores, fast-food outlets, canteens, bakeries, restaurants, and other food companies will be mandated to donate good quality food instead of throwing them away. The proposed measure is meant to encourage donations to charities. For their part, charities will be required to collect and stock these food properly and distribute them with ‘dignity’, and not given as handouts on the streets.

And also, we have, as part of our legislative agenda to address the plight of our poorest farmers, the coconut farmers, and that is the Coco Levy Trust Fund measure which seeks to correct past injustices against coconut farmers. Forty-three years ago, a year into Martial Law, the late Marcos dictator and his cronies started collecting coco levies from our coconut farmers. However, instead of investing these funds to improve the industry and the lives of the farmers, they spent part of it as they wished and invested the rest on San Miguel shares and established companies to firm up their hold on the industry and dictate on the lives of our farmers: purchased bank, purchased biggest oil mills, oleochemical plant, and insurance company. Today, the value of these companies and shares have grown to as much as P200 billion. And yet the farm, the coconut farm, is the poorest. Today, the number one agriculture export in the country is dessicated coconut oil. It is the largest dollar earner in terms of agri exports in the country. Yet the Filipino coconut farmer is the poorest farmer. That is not just.
On September 1, we had our first hearing on the Coco Levy Trust Fund measure that will put the money to what it was legally meant for: the benefit of the farmers and the development of the coconut industry.

Right now, the coconut industry consists of more than 300 million coconut trees- more trees than Filipinos and it produces about 15 billion nuts a year. That does not include nuts from the government like me. Just kidding. The 15 billion nuts is equivalent to 3 billion liters of coco water annually. 98 percent of that coco water is thrown away because the number one is copra. Which is to say, therefore, that once the copra is finished, the coco water is thrown away.

There is a need to address, likewise, the value-adding- the modernization of the coconut industry so that we create additional value-added products such as coco vinegar, coco oil, coco coir, and the like.

A copra farmer earns P50 a day. But a coco coir farmer can earn as much as P400 a day. Simply because there is this equipment that is necessary to turn coco husks into coco coir. Coco coir is then used for embankments in terms of soil erosion. In 2015, the Department of Public Works and Highways purchased P4 billion worth of coco coir and it saved P2 billion more because it is one third the cost of cement in terms of materials for embankments.

Today, we hold more than hope and resolve to do right by our coconut farmers. We have P75 billion held in trust by the government which we will need to use to, at the very least, raise the income of the coco farmers.

Through the law we are crafting, we will create the mechanisms by which coconut farmers can actively shape and uplift their lives.

The bills that I have mentioned are just some of the measures that we hope to be able to push for in the Senate so that we can address squarely the bottom line, which is: if we want to secure our food, if we want to be able to prepare our farmers in terms of climate change resiliency, if we want to modernize our farming and our agriculture, we must first secure our farmers and our fisher folk.

Thank you very much for this opportunity. Maraming salamat po!