March 30, 2023
MANILA – Former agriculture secretary William Dar sounded the alarm in 2021: If nothing is done to make it worthwhile for more Filipinos to take up farming, the Philippines will face a “critical” shortage of farmers in just 12 years, thus threatening the country’s ability to feed its own growing population.
Dar cited the results of a 2020 study by retired University of the Philippines anthropology professor Florencia Palis, who determined that the average age of Filipino farmers is 53—up from 46 in 1966—and that they’ve been working on the farm for 25 years. Assuming a retirement age of 65, they have only 12 productive years left, with not enough young Filipinos to take their place, not even their own offspring. In fact, the farmers themselves actively discourage their children from following in their footsteps.
According to Palis’ paper titled “Aging Filipino Rice Farmers and Their Aspirations for Their Children,” as many as 65 percent of 923 farmers surveyed for the study believed that their children “would not have any future” tilling the land. For a better life, farming is “considered the last resort.” Farmers would rather that their children finish college and find a more stable job in urban areas or overseas. Doing so could free them from the physical and financial burdens that their parents have endured, and allow them to break the vicious cycle of poverty. “If they are getting older, who will replace them? Who will produce rice to feed the Filipinos?” Palis asked. But then who can blame farmers for dissuading their children from going into agriculture when, as the folk song goes, farming is no joke?
Palis’ paper shows how Filipino rice farmers are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of indebtedness as most of them do not have the capital needed to see them through the planting season. Informal lenders who charge a hefty 20-percent monthly interest thus corner the bulk of their earnings. Adverse market forces and climate change with its more frequent and stronger typhoons, as well as more severe and protracted droughts that ravage their crops, have sunk them further into debt and poverty.
The latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority bear this out, with the 2021 poverty statistics showing that farmers and fisherfolk remain the poorest in the Philippines. Fisherfolk had the highest poverty incidence of 30.6 percent, followed by farmers with 30 percent. No surprise then that Filipinos are leaving the agriculture sector in droves. A report from the National Economic and Development Authority similarly shows that the number of Filipinos involved in agriculture plummeted by 25 percent to 9.07 million in 2017, from 12.25 million in 2010, with 15 of the country’s 17 regions enduring losses in agricultural employment between 2010 and 2017.
“[There is] out-migration in agriculture especially among young and educated workers across study areas … Most agricultural workers permanently migrated to jobs in construction, information technology, business processing management, transportation (as ‘habal-habal’ drivers, for one), retail and food establishments (in sales and as food attendants), manufacturing (like food processing), tourism-related services, and domestic work (as ‘kasambahay’),” according to the study titled, “Out-Migration in Agriculture: An Analysis of the Loss of the Labor in the Agriculture Sector in the Philippines.”
There remains the urgent need to encourage more Filipinos to take up farming by dismantling the structural obstacles that have held down farmers for far too long, and have prevented the country from achieving food self-sufficiency. President Marcos must lead the herculean effort to increase the ranks of farmers and make farming a more profitable endeavor, thus raising agricultural productivity and lowering food prices. As Agriculture secretary, he can deploy the resources needed and direct the bureaucracy to do right by the farmers. He will not lack for master plans and road maps to improve the lot of farmers and fisherfolk, as their plight has been studied, dissected, and reviewed by local and international think tanks, academic institutions, and the private sector whose fortunes are tied to agri business.
The challenge therefore is not in coming up with a new game plan, but in the implementation of already existing laws, and in genuine commitment to follow through the steps already laid out: from improving access to affordable credit, to infrastructure and technology support, and subsidies for cheaper farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizer. The Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc. has even called on the President to declare a state of agriculture emergency and to act on measures presented back in July for the country to attain food security.
But whatever plan or program this administration decides to pursue, it must put farmers front and center where they can be heard. They deserve no less for putting food on our table and ensuring our very survival.