Farmers trash spoiled vegetables while poor go hungry

MANILA, Philippines – Tons of vegetables in the Mountain Province in the Cordillera Administrative Region are about to be thrown away in the next couple of days, as farmers struggle to sell them due to several lockdowns in Luzon.

Mounds of decayed broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage have already been disposed of, as flies start to feast on them. Sacks of chayote, carrots, and potatoes are in danger of being chucked out next.

“Wala pong oversupply, siguro hindi lang po talaga nakakapasok ang mga buyer sa mga buying center dito [sa Mountan Province] dahil sa mga checkpoint siguro. Marami na rin daw kasi nagsara na tindahan dahil sa coronavirus,” said Jhoanne Banito, a farmer in Bakuo, Mountain Province.

(There is no oversupply. Maybe buyers are unable to get to buying centers here because of the checkpoints. Many stores have also reportedly closed due to the coronavirus.)

While Jhoanne and her husband are worried about the coronavirus, they also fear that their 3 children will go hungry if their vegetables are not sold.

She has not thrown out her harvest yet, but is worried she might need to do the same as the other farmers if help does not come.

“Kahit di na po kami mabigyan ng relief goods ayos lang, bilhin na lang po sana ng gobyerno ang gulay namin kasi natatakot na kaming magutom ang mga anak namin,” she said.

(It’s all right that we don’t receive relief goods, the government just needs to buy our vegetables because we're already afraid our children will go hungry.)

Over in Metro Manila, urban poor residents also fear hunger. 

Some 21 residents of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City walked out of their homes on Wednesday, April 1, demanding for food. Instead of offering help, cops arrested them. (READ: 'Walang wala na': Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus)

As the government grapples to fight the pandemic, two stories of hunger have emerged: farmers unable to sell tons of produce and the urban poor unable to get even a bag of goods.

Chain reaction

The strict and often inconsistent implementation of checkpoints in Luzon is to blame for the disrupted systems of getting food from the farm to the dining tables of households.

This problem was immediately flagged by farmers and business owners on the first few days of the lockdown. 

Julio Abrigo, a poultry trucker, told Rappler that around 100 chickens have died in transit because of the long lines in checkpoint

"Namatay sa init [ang mga manok]. Tapos hindi pa ako nakalabas agad ng Manila pauwi [sa Nueva Ecija] kasi bawal daw. Natulog ako ng isang araw sa truck bago nila ako pinayagang umalis," Abrigo said.

(The chickens died because of the heat. After delivery, I was not allowed to go back to Nueva Ecija. I had to sleep for a day in the truck before I was allowed to leave.) 

"Napakahirap talaga sir, hindi ko alam kung virus o gutom ang papatay sa amin...Tapos gigipitin ka pa sa checkpoint, sinabi ko naman na na-deliver ko na ang mga manok ayaw pa maniwala," he added.

(It's very difficult, It's either the virus or hunger that will kill us... The checkpoint was so strict, even though I already told them I was done with the delivery and I had to go home, they refused to believe me.)

In a letter dated March 27, the United Broiler Raisers Association (UBRA) urged Agriculture Secretary Willam Dar to address the chain disruption the lockdown has caused.

"[T]he behavior of local government units (LGUs) since March 16, 2020 has brought despair to our members that I have not experienced before," said UBRA president Elias Inciong.

Inciong told Dar that most farmers have cut back on production and may lead to a "domino effect that will be devastating."

The Philippine Association of Meat Processors, Incorporated (PAMPI) also warned of supply shortages.

In a letter to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) PAMPI said a "severe" shortage of meat products may occur around mid-April, should plastic, tin cans, and labeling materials continue to be barred from checkpoints.

Food products from abroad have also been hampered by the lockdown. 

Enrique Razon Jr's International Container Terminal Services Incorporated (ICTSI) said that the Manila port has been so congested, it will become "impossible to operate in an efficient manner."

"We understand that it is unfeasible for some and many businesses have been temporarily shut down, but without the support of everyone that is able to open, we will come to a point when efficient operations will no longer be feasible," ICTSI said.

ICTSI offered its off-site facilities in Laguna, Bulacan, and Cavite for companies that are unable to bring their cargo to their own facilities due to the lockdown.

The port operator likewise asked the government to condemn or transfer overstaying containers that were supposed to be out of the terminal from 2018 or earlier.

LGUs step in

With both farmers and consumers going hungry, some LGUs have started their own initiatives to resolve the problem.

The Bocaue, Bulacan local government has bought 13 tons of vegetables and strawberries from Bauko, Mountain Province worth P500,000 to be distributed to residents.



"Narinig po kasi ng mayor namin ang balitang mabubulok na ang mga gulay, kaya nagmadali kaming maghanap ng contact doon para pagdating namin doon, kukunin na lang," said Rico Siongco, a barangay captain in Bocaue.

(Our mayor heard the news that vegetables would soon rot, so we immediately looked for a contact person there so that picking up the goods would be easier.)

Siongco said other LGUs in Bulacan have started to follow what Bocaue did.

Playing catch up

Problems in the movement of goods should have ended as early as March 20, when the DTI released a memorandum circular, which ensured unhampered movement of all food and non-food cargoes to and from Luzon.

Rappler has reached out to farmers and retailers to check whether the memorandum was effectively implemented.

Myrna Sandoval, a store owner in Manila, said the memo's impact trickled down too slow and too late, as poultry raisers decided to just finish their current production cycles and have started halting operations.

"Hirap daw makakuha ng pakain sa manok kasi hinaharang pa rin, tapos may mga requirements pa daw sa delivery, kaya stop na lang daw muna sila... May nabebenta pa ako ngayon, pero kung magtatagal pa [ang lockdown] baka magsara na rin ako," Sandoval said.

(Poultry raisers tell me that they are having a hard time getting feeds because trucks are still stopped at checkpoints and the delivery requirements are still there, so they decided to stop. I still have items to sell, but if the lockdown gets extended, I might close too.)

To resolve checkppint problems, the government and a group of IT professionals deployed the use of QR codes, a week before the scheduled end of the Luzon-wide lockdown.

The "RapidPassPH” System which was rolled out on Monday, April 6, aims to facilitate movement for frontliners and priority vehicles. 

Frontliners and companies providing essential goods can apply for their QR codes through the RapidPass website. After this, the request will be sent to relevant government agencies for approval.

Once approved, applicants will receive a link to their QR code through email or text message at the numbers used to register. Codes can be printed out and stuck to vehicles or saved on phones for scanning at checkpoints.

DEVCON, a group of Filipino developers and IT professionals, developed for free this system for the government.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture has rolled out its Kadiwa program or “Katuwang sa Diwa at Gawa para sa Masaganang Ani at Mataas na Kita,” which directly connects food producers to consumers.

The Kadiwa program went online on Friday, April 3, allowing consumers and LGUs to place bulk orders of various agricultural items.

"Sana nga po maabot kami ng mga programa, kasi talagang mahirap na dito," farmer Jhoanne Banito said. (I hope the programs reach us here in the Mountain Province, because the situation is really getting very difficult.)

The Inter-Agency Task Force on the coronavirus pandemic has set the guidelines for the government decision to lift or extend the Luzon lockdown which is supposed to end on April 12.

Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion proposed a shift to selective quarantine at the barangay level to help revive segments of the economy and eliminate most checkpoints. – Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.

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