Weakest link

/ 05:16 AM January 02, 2019

It’s the time of year when economists and analysts give their usual outlook for the new year—either cautious optimism or a guarded one. And why not? The global economy remains fraught with risks that could affect the welfare especially of smaller nations. There’s the escalating US-China trade war. Prices of crude oil remain volatile, and Britain’s exit from the European Union still hangs.

Locally, the government cannot do anything about those external events. Still, the Philippines is tipped to continue growing at a fast clip of more than 6 percent this year, thanks to a ramping up in infrastructure spending, among others. However, the country has to address local issues that could affect economic growth.


Take the agriculture sector. The government’s economic team has noted that the farm sector needs to step up if the country is to sustain its high-growth momentum. In the first nine months of 2018, the farm sector grew by only 0.15 percent, compared to the growth in the same period last year of 4.59 percent. The Department of Agriculture had targeted an annual growth of 2.5 percent for 2018, while economic managers had asked the agency to at least maintain a growth rate of 2 percent yearly.

It’s easy to blame bad weather for the dismal performance, considering that the farm sector remains vulnerable to disasters caused by typhoons, about 20 of which visited the country last year. When output of agricultural produce such as rice and fish falls short of demand, prices rise and imports are resorted to. Such was the case in 2018 when rising prices of agriculture items caused inflation to shoot up to the highest in more than nine years.


Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol did blame the dismal performance of the sector on natural disasters, citing as an example Typhoon “Ompong,” which alone caused P26.7 billion in damage to the sector as it tore through the country’s major rice-producing area in Northern Luzon. In the fisheries sector (another major component of agriculture), production has declined steadily in the last five years, reportedly because of unfavorable weather conditions. Fishermen refuse to go out to sea during heavy rainfall and inclement weather for fear of unpredictable waves and tides.

But the government cannot forever be blaming bad weather every time the agriculture sector fails to meet its growth target. Typhoons—dozens of them—are a given annually in this country. Planning should consider that fact. For instance, why continue planting rice in a vulnerable area, only for it to be destroyed before harvest by heavy rains and strong winds?

For Sen. Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate committee on agriculture and food, the gap lies in the sector’s lack of mechanization and resistance to technology, along with the reality of the diminishing and aging ranks of farmers, compounded by disagreements and bureaucratic wrangling among policymakers. These are just some of the persisting problems in Philippine agriculture, made worse by weather disturbances.

For the fisheries sector, one solution comes from the Department of Agriculture itself: shift to aquaculture if possible. Last year, the agency was able to distribute boats and quality fingerlings and feeds, although at a modest pace because of budget constraints. Increasing the budget for aquaculture and introducing new technologies will help this sub-sector arrest the decline in output.

The passage of amendments to Republic Act No. 8178, or the Agricultural Tariffication Act, is being touted as a crucial step in reforming the agriculture sector over the medium and long term. This proposed bill, once signed into law and fully implemented, is expected to help bring down the prices of rice (flood the market with supply and prices will decline, according to its proponents) and provide farmers better access to farming technologies and high-yield variety crops (taxes from rice imports will be used to help modernize farming).

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia earlier noted that climate change is only about to get worse. If the Philippines does nothing to prepare for it, the consequences would impede the country’s target of increasing agricultural productivity and ensuring food security. Agriculture sure needs all the help it can get to step up. It cannot be left behind as the weakest link in the country’s
economic growth story.

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