Calls mount in Congress to scrutinize P2.5-B fertilizer plan
Lawmakers from both the Senate and the House of Representatives have called for an investigation into the order of the Department of Agriculture (DA) mandating the purchase of P2.5 billion worth of biofertilizers to ensure that it would not end up being another scam.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Thursday filed Senate Resolution No. 608, wherein she expressed alarm that Memorandum Order No. 32, released on April 27 and sets the guidelines on the distribution and use of biofertilizers this year purportedly to improve rice production, could lead to a repeat of the 2004 fertilizer fund scam.
In 2009, the Senate blue ribbon committee concluded that a DA program on the procurement and distribution of fertilizers nationwide was a massive fraud, with former agriculture officials, led by Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, diverting P728 million in fertilizer funds to the 2004 presidential bid of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“At a time of high prices and looming El Niño, it is imperative [for Congress] to review the policies of the (DA) on rice production. Will the heavy burden of our farmers be eased or will it just end up in corruption that will make them even more miserable?” Hontiveros asked.
The senator filed the resolution after farmers’ groups flagged MO 32, warning that this could result in another anomaly.
“The idea of buying biofertilizers is drawing concern from farmer organizations since it may end up being another fertilizer fund scam. We must look at this situation,” she pointed out.
Sought for comment, Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian said: “We want to assure the respected members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that we are ready to explain the memo to them during any probe they will conduct.”
Pangasinan lawmaker Rep. Mark Cojuangco, in a privilege speech on Monday, likewise urged Congress to look into the DA directive issued by Sebastian, the same official who previously signed, as then administrator of the Sugar Regulatory Administration, the order authorizing the importation of some 300,000 metric tons of sugar without President Marcos’ approval. He was later cleared, along with several other respondents, by the Office of the President of charges stemming from the supposedly unauthorized issuance last year of Sugar Order No. 4.
“I would just like to point out that in the past, fertilizer scams have been centered around this kind of biofertilizers and so I would like us, the Philippines, to be very careful in the expenditure of these kinds of monies for the purchase of something which is not sure to benefit our farmers,” Cojuangco said.
He urged his colleagues to conduct an inquiry “because this is scary if you remember the past fertilizer scams where billions went into the pockets of a few persons.”
Sri Lanka ban
Cojuangco also recounted that in 2021, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a decision that precipitated the country’s economic downturn.
“Within six months, their rice production dropped by 20 percent. (Sri Lanka’s) target was to save up around $400 million in avoiding the importation of chemical fertilizers. But within six months, they had to import more than $400 million worth of rice,” Cojuangco said. “Instead of the $400 million going to farmers in Sri Lanka, the money went to farmers in other countries which precipitated its economy’s collapse.”
In the DA order, Cojuangco said the agency would require the use of biofertilizers in equal parts with chemical fertilizers.
The DA would then buy biofertilizers to be distributed to “identified qualified farmers in rice cluster areas,” who are members of irrigators’ associations and farmer groups or agrarian reform beneficiaries and are listed in the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture.
Funds for the procurement of the biofertilizers would be sourced from the fertilizer support program of the national rice program.
“This is a very serious matter that we ought to give attention to right away,” Cojuangco stressed.
The DA order noted that the biofertilizers it would buy “can substitute for at least two bags of urea without sacrificing the yield,” claiming that biofertilizer was cheaper compared to two bags of inorganic fertilizer per hectare, which costs P4,000.
But Hontiveros disputed MO 32’s figure of P4,000 per hectare, supposedly because at present, a bag of urea was now priced at P1,100 and two bags needed for every hectare of farm would cost only P2,200.
“There is a need to investigate the basis for the issuance of MO No. 32, whether the price of fertilizer and the cost of urea per bag are indeed high enough to warrant the insistence of the DA in using biofertilizer,” the resolution stated.
Hontiveros called for the inquiry study to determine if biofertilizer was indeed more cost-effective and would increase rice farmers’ yield.
“Congress needs to listen to the farmers because their livelihood is at stake,” the senator added.
While the DA assured skeptics that a bidding process would lower the price, the use of commercial biofertilizers was still a new concept, according to Hontiveros.
“The procurement agency and its auditors may not know how to specify biofertilizer quality and price,” she said, adding that any invitation for bidding might not draw many suppliers and raised the possibility that while the procurement process would look competitive on paper, it would not reflect reality.
Hontiveros, however, clarified that her call for an investigation was not meant to cast aspersions on the DA, but merely for Congress to exercise its oversight functions.
“I trust in the integrity of DA Undersecretary (Leocadio) Sebastian, and this resolution should be viewed in the spirit of enhancing the procurement process at the DA so that regional DA offices and their auditors receive better guidance,” she said.
The farmers’ group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) earlier urged President Marcos to immediately revoke the DA order, also warning that it could result in another fertilizer scam.