May 4, 2022

Finally, the agricultural sector will be heard

The Department of Agriculture (DA) and disgruntled farmers, fishers and agricultural stakeholders will come together today, March 11, to find solutions and work collectively to address potential threats arising from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Stakeholders will finally work together to ensure that the suffering suffered by the agricultural sector when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 is not repeated this time.

When an international trade agreement is finalized, all players must respect its rules and take the necessary measures to optimize its results. But when we joined the WTO, we did not do what Vietnam did (ie undertake the necessary preparatory measures). Vietnam has benefited, while we have suffered.

The same dangers we experienced with the WTO are the same that threaten us now with RCEP.

It is time for the DA and the private sector, through the legislated Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries, to come together.

Private sector

It was the lack of private sector involvement and consultation that led us to the dilemma we have today.

The DA insisted that RCEP posed no threat to agriculture and therefore there was no need for preparatory measures. But 102 private organizations, which submitted a signed statement on February 3 to the Senate, had strongly disputed this.

In that year and four months before RCEP negotiators announced they had a deal in November 2020, the private sector was starved of participation.

Today is finally the day. It’s like a new and refreshing phenomenon that we now see in the electoral process.

Private sector participation in governance strongly emphasized by Vice President Leni Robredo motivated the Alyansa Agrikultura (AA) to break its 18-year-old non-partisan policy to endorse Robredo. Consistent with their position, the AAs have recommended a gathering of agricultural stakeholders on March 11.

Among the issues that will be discussed at the meeting are:

Guarantees. Without first preparing our rice farmers for the 35% tariff commitment at the WTO, our government immediately implemented it by promising that consumer prices will fall and farmers’ incomes will rise.

The end results were very different: prices fell in nominal terms (not counting the unusual year 2018 when imports were significantly delayed) by just 2%, while farmers’ incomes fell by 23%.

Anti-smuggling. Rampant smuggling could increase with more imports coming under RCEP.

An indicator of the extent of smuggling is the Customs Bureau report that 8.85 billion pesos in tariff revenue was lost from March 29, 2019 to October 2021. The times it was exploited, will also be discussed.

Preparatory measures. The most important topic will be the preparatory measures identified by agricultural sub-sector. These include the establishment of a market information system, strengthened quarantine mechanisms, processing facilities, specific support services and targeted subsidies.

The DA should be commended for engaging with the private sector to address RCEP.

With political will, postponing the ratification of RCEP for a few months will allow agriculture to implement the most necessary preparatory actions.

With the promise of tomorrow (or rather today), I hope that agriculture will no longer be outdone.

The author is President of Agriwatch, former Secretary of Presidential Programs and Projects and former Undersecretary of the DA and DTI. Contact is [email protected]

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