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The rains came—as a divine windfall

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The rains came—as a divine windfall

THE  RAINS came—and brought good news for a change to an administration reeling from setbacks over its faltering campaign to clean up corruption in government.

Angered by the decision of the  Sandiganbayan in approving the  plea-bargain agreement between former military comptroller Carlos Garcia  and special prosecutors of the Office of the Ombudsman over Garcia’s P303-million plunder case, President Aquino found relief in the news that in the first quarter of 2011 Philippine rice (palay) output reached the “highest rice volume we have seen since Filipinos started planting rice.”  A jubilant Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said the volume was “unprecedented.”

According to the Department of Agriculture, agriculture grew 4.10 percent in the first quarter, boosted by a strong rice harvest. The rice sector output expanded 15.63 percent to 4.03 million metric tons. Although the agricultural expansion was lower than the target of 4.5  to 5.5 percent, it marked a turnaround from last year’s negative growth and was the fastest first-quarter growth since 2004.

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That the breakthrough took place in the first quarter did not allow agriculture department officials to claim that the record harvest was due to  man-made inputs of the Aquino administration; rather it was the intervention of Divine Providence that was mainly responsible for the bountiful harvest. Officials said that the output was boosted by ample rains that led to the bountiful  harvests. Alcala said the repair and rehabilitation  of irrigation systems, along with better rains, were the primary factors behind the farm sector’s recovery. He did not credit the  administration for contributing  special inputs  to agriculture. It must be noted that the repair and rehabilitation of already existing irrigation systems  are routine  tasks of agriculture department personnel who did their jobs well.

The crops sub-sector  accounted for 53 percent of total agricultural output and expanded 8.19 percent, led by  palay, corn and sugarcane. Alcala cannot be too confident to claim that the palay sub-sector’s performance was a step toward rice  self-sufficiency by 2013, a key mid-term goal of the Aquino administration. This forecast rests on uncertain weather conditions, given that ample rains were credited for the strong harvest. A period of drought or even  typhoons coming during the ripening periods of the palay could easily devastate the crops.

Despite prospects of stronger storms in the second half of the year, the agriculture department  expects palay production to hit about 17.46 million metric tons in 2011, more than 10 percent higher than last year’s harvest.  “We won’t be able to project how intense these storms will be, but we have factored them in these projections,” Alcala said.

A more realistic prediction by  officials is that the increase in palay production made it unlikely for the country to increase the rice import  of 860,000 metric tons, about a third of last year’s record volume of 2.45 million metric tons. The Philippines has been the world’s largest rice importer in recent years.

Farm output  makes up a fifth of Philippine GDP and is expected to  support the 2011 economic growth target of 7.8 percent after last year’s  7.3 percent expansion (growth that took place during the Arroyo administration, from which the Aquino administration is now benefitting, although P-Noy  is not even grudgingly giving the past government any credit for it).

There is optimism in non-government economic circles over sustained growth rates. Rolando T. Dy, executive director of the University of Asia  and the Pacific’s Center for Agribusiness, said he expected first quarter output to have increased by more than 5 percent.  “This is driven by  rice and corn which will likely post double-digit growth because of larger harvested areas due to La Niña,”  he said.

Benjamin Diokno, a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, was even more optimistic. He said that the “agricultural sector must have grown by at least 7 percent in QI  due to base and in response to higher incentives to plant rice as the government adjusted support price for rice.”

The first quarter rice output  was the first breakthrough  since 1965 when the Marcos administration announced  “a breakthrough in rice production (that) enabled us to export the staple for the first time in our history.” Before this, Diokno said, “we have been habitually importing rice. In 1965, we spent P264 million to purchase 570,000 metric tons of rice from abroad.  In 1968, we stopped importing rice; what is more, we earned $5.9 million from our rice exports and $1.17 million from the sale of certified rice seeds to various countries.”

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In 1964, Marcos named Vice President Fernando Lopez secretary of agriculture. Tagged by Marcos as the “rice czar,” Lopez successfully implemented  a rice production program, spearheaded by the “miracle rice” variety developed in the Philippine International Rice Institute in Los Baños,  and put a talented  technocrat, Rafael Salas, in charge of the project. This project was a political intervention  backed by government resources and carried out with technocratic  expertise. The successful implementation enabled the Philippines to export rice for the first time  in 1968.

Self-sufficiency in rice production has been a primary goal of Philippine administrations since the establishment of civil government under the American colonial regime in the early 1900s. President Aquino has been handed an opportunity to deliver results in food security, rather than dissipating his mandate by waging reckless vendettas against those he perceives to be opposing his reforms.

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TAGS: agriculture, economy, food, Rice production
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