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Is this a turning point?

/ 05:08 AM August 08, 2019

I wrote in April about the disaster that is agriculture. I said then that one of the most important ingredients missing was the right leadership. Seems President Duterte listened, with the recent appointment of William Dar as acting secretary. If he performs well (and looking at his background, I think he will), his appointment will become permanent. But Mr. Duterte needs to come onboard, too. Until now, no president has given agriculture the priority attention it must have. I gather that in his remaining three years in office, Mr. Duterte will give farmers and fishermen the attention they need to become productive and competitive.

He has to, because we can’t have less and less food produced for our people every year (which is what a growth slower than the number of new babies every year means). With the Philippine population increasing by about 1.7 percent per annum, it is important that the country’s agricultural output rises by at least 2 percent annually. In 2018, the sector grew by a mere 0.9 percent.

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Dar is well-known in the agricultural research community, having served as director general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics from 1999 to 2014. He previously held the agriculture post for 11 months during the Estrada administration.

His job is a daunting one. The country’s agriculture sector is in poor shape, with lack of irrigation and roads, insufficient research and development (R&D) spending, lack of productive seeds, excessive intrusion by middlemen, antiquated machinery, etc.—the list is almost endless. The sector has suffered from misprioritization over so many years.

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I’ll come back to my old hobby horse, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Its all-or-nothing approach was just plain wrong. Some agricultural crops have to be grown on large plantations. I venture that many poor farmers would welcome working for a responsible plantation owner who provides them with full-time, well-paid jobs (not the one-third of Manila’s minimum wage they now earn), as well as housing and medical facilities and free schooling for their families. If these were done, the Philippines may even become a net exporter of agricultural products, eventually expanding the country’s export base.

I’d add to that allowing long-term agricultural leasing to foreigners. Let global manufacturers produce in the Philippines the raw materials they need for their worldwide markets. The benefits in the form of jobs created, civic works and community support would more than justify this.

In the immediate term, Dar needs to oversee the full implementation of the rice tarrification law, a sensible measure that can reduce rice prices further if properly managed. Reducing rice prices plays a crucial role in lifting Filipinos out of poverty. According to latest data from the World Bank, about 21.6 percent of the Philippine population is poor, way higher than Indonesia’s 10.6 percent, Thailand’s 8.6 percent and Vietnam’s 9.8 percent.

Also needing immediate action, not just endless promises, is overseeing the disbursement of the P10-billion rice competitiveness enhancement fund that would support farmers through the procurement of rice farm equipment; the development, promotion and propagation of seeds; creation of a credit facility with minimal interest; and skills training in rice crop production, modern rice farming techniques, seed production and farm mechanization.

But that’s going to require something I’ve hardly ever seen—the government actually using the funds as the law intended, efficiently and swiftly. Maybe Dar can kick a few butts.

Then there’s fishing. Our fishing grounds are being rapidly depleted with overfishing and the illegal intrusion of foreigners, almost entirely Chinese fishermen, into our territorial waters. Fish are not reproducing as fast as the Philippine population is growing. I suggested on April 4 a separate department, as the sector has vastly different problems and solutions. But three new departments have been proposed recently: one on water, one for overseas Filipino workers and one for housing. Another new one might be a bit much, resulting in an unwieldy Cabinet. I’ll leave that decision to the President.

For now, it’s time agriculture got the attention it deserves. Let’s hope this is the turning point.

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