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Let’s feed them

/ 05:04 AM September 17, 2020

As I said last week, we have 108 million Filipinos to feed, and we aren’t doing it. Of that 108 million, 13 million are malnourished kids and about 5.5 million are food-poor, based on the latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority.

We import up to 14 percent of our rice needs, 16 percent of the pork, and up to 20 percent of the country’s chicken meat demand. The list goes on; we aren’t feeding our people. I’m in no way advocating forced self-sufficiency, as was so disastrously tried for nearly 60 years for rice. But achieving it, or close to it, for the food Filipinos love and need, should be the aim, by assisting farmers to do it.

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Yet the agriculture budget is being cut by 17 percent next year. The 2021 budget proposal allots P61 billion for the Department of Agriculture, down from the P79.9 billion this year. The military gets P236 billion, the police P191 billion. They’re important, yes, but are they more important than feeding Filipinos? Infrastructure is P1 trillion. Could more of that be provided by ODA loans and a shift to the private sector paying for it under PPP? Our agricultural lands are down to 13.32 million hectares in 2019 from 14.74 million hectares in 1995. From 2015 to 2019, the country’s total crop area grew by a measly 0.2 percent per annum. Population grew at 1.5 percent during that period. Land devoted to palay was reduced by 3.1 percentage points to 4.65 million hectares. Meanwhile, there are fewer farmers as the old die and the young migrate to the cities.

A National Economic and Development Authority report titled “Rural Labor Migration: An Analysis of the Loss of Labor in the Agriculture Sector in the Philippines,” stressed that 15 out of 17 regions in the country reported a loss of agriculture-related labor from 2010 to 2017.

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We should not only be feeding 108 million, we should be exporting huge amounts of the crops we can grow competitively — but the support to do so must be there.

We have 4.6 million people out of work, based on the labor department’s July 2020 Labor Force Survey. The SWS number is 27.3 million. Farming requires people. Lots of them. From 12.2 million in 2010, the number of Filipinos involved in agriculture had plunged to 9 million by 2017. COVID-19 has forced physical distancing upon us. Physical distancing is a normal part of looking after crops. People could be hired right now for it, COVID-19 or no COVID-19.

Most of our crops are in a sorry state. Except for bananas and mangoes, everything else is grown less productively here than elsewhere. That provides a lot of room for improvement. If we can attain the levels others have, we’ll feed the people better, and provide opportunity for earning much-needed dollars.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar, who is doing a great job because he’s an experienced horticulturist so he knows what’s needed, asked for a budget of P284.4 billion in 2021, more than thrice DAR’s current budget of P79.9 billion. However, the proposed budget is not only not giving it to him, it’s cutting it down to P61 billion.

He wanted P284.4 billion so he could “sustain, reboot, and grow” the agriculture and fisheries sector. That’s exactly what it needs, a shot in the arm, a complete revamp to put it on top where it belongs. As I’ve long argued, agriculture and IT are the two sectors that should lead the Philippine economy. Neither is being given the funds needed to achieve this.

Agriculture, under the DA, has done what no other sector did. It grew during COVID-19. We have a secretary that knows what he’s doing. That growth was small, only 1.6 percent. But industry shrank by 23 percent and services fell by 16 percent.

The President has acknowledged that “Plant, Plant, Plant” is easier to implement than “Build, Build, Build.” In his last State of the Nation Address, the President said: “We aim to provide adequate, accessible and affordable food for every Filipino [family] through the Plant, Plant, Plant Program. After the Build, Build, Build… I think this is easier to achieve. A few good men—a few good regional directors, DAR, and the dedicated workers down below could make this thing a success.”

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Let’s hope Congress moves funds from less important needs, such as construction of barangay basketball courts, to augment the agricultural budget. Agriculture, along with IT, can be the foundation of our competitive future in the world. And food feeds our families.

Email: [email protected]

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