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Romancing agriculture

/ 05:02 AM December 07, 2019

In the face of the current assaults on the agricultural sector, a refreshing whiff of wisdom is heard from an authoritative source. Speaking at the investiture of new director Glenn Gregorio of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture recently, Education Secretary Leonor Briones advocated for the integration of agriculture subjects in the basic education curriculum (elementary and secondary levels), since it might be too late if done at the tertiary level. The integration also aims to make agriculture “sexy” in order to lure young people to consider it as a profession. While there are many degree-holders in agriculture now, most of them are in armchair positions either in the academe or in company cubicles, not in the fields.

As a farm stakeholder, I agree with this idea. Although requiring a long process, the idea strikes the nail on the head vis-à-vis what ails Philippine agriculture today. Sidelined decades ago from the government’s development priorities in obeisance to World Bank and World Trade Organization prescriptions, Philippine agriculture progressively became moribund. These covenants were later acknowledged by no less than former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz as wrong prescriptions for Third World countries, and expressed mea culpa for these mistakes. But while other countries tried to find ways to minimize the impacts of such prescriptions on the national interest, we readily genuflected. My late other-half Gat Inciong attributed this response to our “culture of subservience.”

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Over the years, local farmers survived on sariling sikap (self-help), planting okra or raising shrimps, given the role as Japan’s backyard garden. We were even asked to plant jathropa, a venture that 90 percent of Filipino farmers could not afford to pursue because it required wide hectarage and huge capital to process into ethanol. Besides, the IPs (indigenous peoples) whom I tried to engage claimed “Lason ‘yan! Di namin makain (It’s toxic!

We cannot eat it).” Clearly, there was a wide gap between policy and realities on the ground. Today, our rice farmers, who bear the brunt of past political indifference, have also been hit by a double whammy: 1) the Rice Tariffication Law liberalizing rice imports and thus plunging palay prices; and 2) successive earthquakes and typhoons. Adding insult to injury, they are being chided for low productivity, weak competitiveness and meager contribution to the gross national product. The situation now calls for immediate rescue, but the government response swings like a pendulum.

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Going back to Briones’ advocacy to revive and “sexify” Philippine agriculture, the first step that should be done, I believe, is to remove the cultural biases against farming. To begin with, the education department should ban the song “Planting rice is never fun x x x” in music classes. It has done incalculable damage not only to rice farmers but also to agriculture as a whole. The matapobre (condescending) attitude of public officials and young people toward farmers is rooted in this song, which they learned in grade school. It is still being sung and danced to, this time with “Zumba” beats.

The image of the bahay kubo as a symbol of rural poverty, aggravated by profits in real estate, must also change. A well-built native house is not only durable and healthier, it is also aesthetically pleasing and more sustainable than matchbox rowhouses.However, the real flesh, the true imperatives for would-be farmers consist of the good-old wish list. To reiterate: 1) Cut the red tape. Local government units should keep the municipal agricultural officers busy assisting beginners; 2) Make credit available and affordable by requiring government and rural banks to lend start-up capital at no more than 2-3 percent annual interest; 3) Open more farm schools to boost training and apprenticeship for aspiring farmers; 4) Build more and durable farm-to-market roads, not just for tricycles and habal-habal but even for swanky pick-up trucks to haul their produce. It took me 10 years of genuflecting for internal revenue allotment and countryside development fund before the snippets of multipurpose pavements met each other; and 5)

Provide cheaper power and water for irrigation. These incentives may not cure all farming woes, but it will gradually correct the existing imbalance between rural and urban development, and prevent the exodus of the workforce from the farm to the cities.

 Eva M. Inciong used to serve as private sector representative for Neda Region IV (Mimaropa) and later cochair for Calabarzon, in tandem with Gov. Hermilando Mandanas of Batangas.

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TAGS: agriculture, Education Secretary Leonor Briones, Glenn Gregorio, Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture
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