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President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. did something I always admire, he thought outside the box. He took direct control of the Department of Agriculture. He wanted to emphasize the huge importance he will give to feeding Filipinos. Good on him, fixing the inadequacies of what the government does to support farmers and fisherfolk has to be of supreme importance.

I agree with him when he recognizes that providing affordable food for all whilst ensuring a respectable income for farmers and fishermen has to be at the top of his to-do list. And that it needs the concentrated attention of the country’s leader. So by taking direct control, he is emphasizing that.

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But I’d like to suggest he may have given himself an almost impossible job. Sorting out the mess that is agriculture and solving its ever so many problems is a 24/7 job. Leading a country of 110 million disparate people toward a decent, human living for all is a 24/7 job. Even a 30/8 job. I can’t see how he can give the necessary full attention to both.

He can put in undersecretaries and assistant secretaries that can support him. But to truly effect real results, he needs a highly experienced, talented, action-oriented leader who can concentrate full-time on fixing the agriculture sector. He can then ride herd on that person to ensure swift, positive action is taken to bring agriculture into the modern productive world. A place it certainly isn’t today.

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Mr. Marcos admitted it was an interim action to get things moving, so I hope that interim will be a very short one. The problem is that this is the very time when he must be fully absorbed in establishing the policies, goals, and plans that will determine where his administration will go, and what it will do in the next six years. That’s more than a full-time job. He has at least two dozen secretaries he has to meet one-on-one to determine, discuss with them, and decide in some depth what they will do (I’m told he likes to be directly involved. A good thing, but that consumes time and attention). At the same time, agriculture is in urgent need of attention on a wide range of critical issues. He just won’t have time for it all. The problem, of course, may well be that he’s having trouble finding that experienced, talented, action-oriented person. Yet, surely amongst our ever so many highly educated Filipinos, such a person exists. Let that person spend the endless, endless hours getting agriculture out of the mess it is in. Those immersed in the agricultural sector may wish to raise names to help him.

Here’s another point to consider. If he has a secretary, that secretary can take the flak that will inevitably come.

I’m by no means an expert on agriculture, but it seems to me that the key word in everything that is decided is: “competitive.” Whatever is decided on should always be focused on making the farmer as productive as the ones in other countries in our region. There’s absolutely no reason why rice should cost more to produce and sell here than it does in Vietnam, but it does. As of June 2022, the average price of rice in the domestic market in Vietnam is at P21.18/kg (equivalent), close to the President’s desire of P20/kg. It’s P37/kg here, why?

No previous president or agriculture secretary has answered that one. It’s going to take lots and lots of hours with many stakeholders and experts to find answers. Hours the president won’t have.

How can we make ploughing, drying, husking, and packaging quicker and more efficient? What do we do about the prohibitive cost of fertilizer, a cost unlikely to come down for a long time? How can we ensure sufficient water through well-designed irrigation systems? How can we lessen post-harvest losses with proper handling techniques and adequate warehouses? How can we minimize the costs of transported agricultural produce? In sum, what can be done to put healthy food on every Filipino’s table?

There’s ever so much more, the complexity of the problem is immense. I don’t even know the questions to ask.

I do know we must concentrate on providing nutritious food for all, at the lowest cost in the immediate term. That means imports where local availability is short. We particularly have to stop malnutrition from affecting more than 33 percent of kids. No child should go hungry. At the same time, concentrate on the longer term solutions that will result in competitive production of produce here, to replace those imports as much as possible.

What the President is doing is a clever strategy if its intent is to highlight the extreme importance he gives to making agriculture do its job of feeding all Filipinos. But in practical terms, it’s fraught with problems. So it will be interesting to see if it works. Maybe having made the point in a very dramatic way, he’ll now step back a little and indeed appoint an agriculture secretary.

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TAGS: department of agriculture, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, food security, Like It Is
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