Advice from the older and wiser
When I wrote on how some countries have done away with mandatory retirement, I received a message from a member of what I described in another column as a formidable group of aging but venerable agricultural experts. The Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP) is prominently composed of retired but no less energetic and dedicated experts in the field, although it does have some not-too-old members as well. CAMP member Ben Peczon, in his email to his fellow members that he copied me, asserted that their group well exemplifies how retired people can continue contributing to the common good.
CAMP recently held its general assembly at the University of the Philippines Los Baños campus, the traditional seat of agricultural knowledge in the country—yet arguably not tapped enough to guide our farm policies through the years. In his report, CAMP chair and guru Dr. Emil Javier, former science minister and UP president and a plant breeder by specialization, laid out our continuing challenges in the sector, which I paraphrase here.
He started by taking stock of our strengths: good soils and growing climate (except for typhoons); fairly well-educated farmers; well-developed higher education and research institutions in agriculture and fisheries; and broad enabling policies and legislation in place, among others. But along with strengths, he pointed out several of our weaknesses that continue to keep us lagging behind our closest neighbors, which, ironically, had sent their agricultural scientists to study in Los Baños—but that is all history now.
First, we have “small, fragmented and uneconomic farm holdings made worse by agrarian reform, and getting worse with every generation.” In countries around us that did agrarian reform properly and successfully, they came to the point of having to find ways to reconsolidate small farm holdings, especially as farms lost workers to industry and urban jobs. We now experience the same challenge well before we can bring agrarian reform to full completion, with young people choosing to abandon their parents’ farms. Dr. Javier thus believes that it’s time to “declare victory in agrarian reform, and move on,” favoring lifting restrictive limits to land ownership to permit productivity gains from economies of scale where warranted.
Another weakness he noted is the “disconnect between our primary producers and markets/processors, or our weak supply/value chains for most farm products.” On this, I have long argued for the governance model adopted in other countries that have a Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (Vietnam, Israel, Poland and many others), or Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry (Malaysia). That is, have the focus of our Department of Agriculture (DA) go well beyond the farm, but also concern itself with the entire value chain, and not pass responsibility on anything beyond the farm gate to the Department of Trade and Industry. That these countries’ farm sectors have far outperformed ours appears to bear out the wisdom of their more holistic approach.
What could well be the most formidable inadequacy that Dr. Javier identified is the weakness in program planning, execution, monitoring and evaluation in our agriculture bureaucracy, which covers the DA and the local government units. CAMP affirms the value of devolution and decentralization in technical support for farmers, and sees the provincial agricultural offices as the key focal points in a devolved agricultural support system. The best approach remains a strong bottom-up approach led and supervised by the provinces with close DA technical support (and not leave municipal agriculture officers to their own resources, as what ensued after the 1991 devolution). Happily, the DA is now working with CAMP to pilot this approach. Rather than be measured on farm production levels that lie beyond its direct control, the DA must be rated on how well it capacitates provinces to uplift their respective farm and agribusiness sectors, a task that must be prominently reflected in its budget and functions.
Perhaps it’s time the DA listened more to those who are older and wiser.
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