The disaster that is agriculture (1)
In 2018, agriculture grew at only 0.56 percent. In the previous administration, it did slightly better: an average of 1.2 percent a year. The population grew faster (1.6 percent), meaning less food produced per person—a disaster if ever there was one. Industry and services both grew at just under 7 percent. Why can’t agriculture?
The Philippines has fertile soil, a generally favorable climate (typhoons notwithstanding), and enough people to do the farming, yet agriculture doesn’t perform as well as it certainly could.
The reasons are many, one of the most important being leadership. No Philippine president has given it the dedicated attention it must have. President Duterte now has the chance to change that, and should. The first thing he should do is gather a group of Filipino and international experts together in a working multiday conference to develop a long-term plan to grow agriculture at least 5 percent annually. A revolution in how agriculture is developed, supported, guided and run should be a major focus this year, and beyond.
A first step should be to split the Department of Agriculture by taking fisheries out of it to create a Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture or, at least a semiautonomous agency with full powers and a Cabinet-level leader. Fishing is a vastly different activity to growing a crop in some soil. It needs concentrated focus on its problems and solutions, or we’ll soon be overfished and without this healthy food that we should eat more of. The Philippines has over 250 million hectares (Mha) of coastal waters and exclusive economic zone, including the Benham Rise that needs to be managed and protected.
Fish should be cheap and plentiful, not become scarcer and scarcer as is now happening (my wife sometimes can’t buy the fish we like, lapu-lapu, as it’s not available in the Seaside market). Creating this department will require the necessary policy, financial, managerial and technical support to make it work, but ensuring the supply of fish is too important not to do it.
A very important start has been made, and that was to take the National Food Authority (NFA) out of trading rice and controlling its trade. This was the kind of courageous, positive step that needed to be taken that no previous president had the guts to do. The supply of rice is expected to be revolutionized by this action, with 107 million Filipinos (I don’t know any Filipino who doesn’t eat rice with every meal, including breakfast; I think I’m the only one) getting cheaper rice. The President needs to ensure the law is not emasculated by restrictive implementing rules and regulations. There are attempts being made by vested interests to do just that. They must be ignored. In the case of rice, a 35-percent tariff is enough to protect farmers. But that’s only one crop, albeit the most important one.
Next in line is corn, which principally goes to feed the animals we’ll later eat. Then coconut and tree crops like coffee, cacao, rubber and palm oil that have been left pretty much to their own devices. A majority of the coffee, cacao and palm oil we consume are imported because other countries produce them more cheaply. The agri conference must find out why—and present solutions. The area for such crops, at 4 Mha, is greater than rice’s 3 Mha. Isn’t it about time to have an umbrella organization for these neglected crops where high poverty reigns?
And isn’t it interesting that all the crops that are not doing well have a government agency controlling them: the NFA for rice; the Sugar Regulatory Administration; the Philippine Coconut Authority; the National Tobacco Administration? I wonder if there’s a causality here.
One of the most damaging policies, if not the most, is the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). CARP has made Filipino farmers poorer, not richer as intended. Poverty incidence in CARP areas is 54 percent; it’s much lower, at 35 percent, in non-CARP areas. The nontradability of CARP farms (a major weakness of the law) has destroyed the formal land market, prevented best use of farms, discouraged private investments and affected the development of formal credit. It’s like too many of the laws that come out of Congress—popular for the moment, but without enough thought given to the real consequences down the road. And CARP has ignored that some crops can only be produced competitively on a plantation. Sugar and bananas are but two of them.
More next week.
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