DA needs full-time secretary
Agriculture is a vital component of the economy, sustaining millions of families in the countryside and providing the essential food needs of Filipinos in urban areas. Yet through the years, it has seen a steady decline in contribution to overall gross domestic product (GDP), reflecting the dismal governance of the farm sector.
Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that agriculture’s share of GDP shrank from 21.8 percent in 1981 to 13.3 percent in 2001, and to less than a tenth this year. The PSA notes that with a 9.1-percent share of total GDP, the agriculture, fishery, and forestry sectors recorded the least contribution among the three major industries to economic growth in the first quarter of 2023.
The latest available poverty statistics released by the PSA in March this year also indicated that fisherfolks and farmers remained the poorest sectors in terms of poverty incidence in 2021. They had the highest proportion of individuals belonging to families with income below the official poverty threshold (which is already low) compared to the other basic sectors. In short, their pitiful lot has not changed through the years.
Then look at the latest labor survey of PSA. Agriculture led the top five subsectors with the biggest drop in the number of employed persons from March 2022 to March 2023, shedding 607,000 jobs. In terms of employment by major industry groups, 11.41 million Filipinos depend on agriculture for work as of March this year. However, of the total employment in the sector, 7.7 million were considered by PSA as part-time workers (reflecting the seasonality of farm jobs) having worked less than 40 hours a week, thus earning less in the process.
No wonder shortages in many agricultural products have become a regular occurrence, and imports have always been the solution. Only recently, the country was hit by supply shortfalls in such commodities as pork, sugar, onions, garlic, and even salt, which is lamentable given the fact that an archipelago such as the Philippines is blessed with an abundant shoreline. There is nothing wrong with importing to boost domestic supply.
But what is appalling is that unscrupulous individuals, most likely with the help of people in the government, make a killing in these importations at the expense of consumers, who have to live with high prices. Last week, the House Committee on Agriculture and Food ended its investigation into the alleged hoarding and price manipulation of onion and garlic and identified the usual suspect — a “Lilia or Leah Cruz,” who is already facing charges for reportedly operating a garlic cartel — as the person on top of an onion cartel, even hinting at the likely involvement of some Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) officials.
At the Senate Committee on Agriculture hearing also last week, Senators Risa Hontiveros and JV Ejercito also wondered why after seven years since the passage of Republic Act No. 10845, or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act, no smuggler has yet been convicted. Add to this the controversies in sugar imports, in the order of the Department of Agriculture (DA) to use biofertilizers that have been feared to be a repeat of the fertilizer fund scam of 2004, and many other anomalies besetting the farm sector.
There is a long list of possible solutions to improve agriculture. Addressing the declining number of farmers, for instance, can be done by making marginal farmers form cooperatives to allow them to engage in agribusiness or commercial farming, which are more efficient and highly profitable. The government can also expand the hectarage of farms by using disposable public lands and idle property and developing rice varieties suitable for organic or natural farming to avoid the use of imported inputs. There are a lot of brilliant ideas to address the problems besetting agriculture.
However, all these cannot be implemented if the most important issue in the sector is not addressed. The DA lacks a leader who can supervise operations in the sector on a full-time, daily basis. President Marcos insists that being concurrent agriculture secretary will directly address problems afflicting the sector. How can he do this if he is busy with other important tasks such as national security, more so if he is often abroad selling the Philippines as an investment destination or attending to his foreign policy obligations as head of state?
It is clear that the President cannot personally run the agriculture department 24/7. If agriculture is truly close to his heart, what he needs to do is appoint a trusted individual to helm the DA, someone personally close with a direct line to him. He can now name highly qualified allies who ran but lost in the May elections last year as the one-year ban on their appointment has lapsed.
And his first marching order for a full-time DA secretary should be to clean up the department and its attached agencies such as the BPI of scalawags. Only then will the DA perform as it should and the agriculture sector contribute what it should to the economy.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.