To our new DA chief | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

To our new DA chief

/ 05:10 AM November 07, 2023

Dear Mr. Secretary, you are now on top of the most problematic sector in our economy. I need not elaborate on this; we can all see it and feel it. I will just point out that being the economy’s backbone, achieving new vigor in our farm and fishery sector under your leadership at the Department of Agriculture (DA) would give a major boost to our industry and services sector as well—and that means the rest of our economy. All eyes are thus on you to redeem us from the stagnation the sector has suffered, and I salute you for agreeing to take on this truly daunting challenge—a heavy yoke to carry indeed.

My three-minute pitch to you revolves around three major missteps made over the past decades that set back our agriculture and fisheries sector to the sorry state it’s in now—and how you, with the help of Congress (which is a big if), can address them to finally redeem the sector.

First, we stifled agricultural investments by fragmenting our best farm areas and killing the rural land markets in the process. To correct this, we must follow our neighbors’ lead and consolidate our small farms into efficient large-scale operating units to achieve economies of scale and lower costs. Two parallel policy tracks would achieve this. The ideal and more inclusive track would be vigorous cooperatives development. Prominent success stories like Soro-Soro Ibaba Development Cooperative in Batangas and Lamac Multipurpose Cooperative in Cebu tell us this is the way to go, even as our history with coops is checkered with failures. The Cooperative Development Authority is focused on regulation and admits to being ill-equipped to do developmental work. We must thus restore the Bureau of Agricultural Cooperatives Development in the DA (but change “Agricultural” to “Agri-Industry” and help farmers go beyond the farm gate and further up the value chain). Agriculture guru Dr. Emil Q. Javier argues that we already have thousands of irrigators associations that can be transformed into coops with the right push and support. Meanwhile, the second track would be to lift land ownership ceilings for agribusiness investors, allowing quicker consolidation of raw material production, especially as coops development would take time and great effort. This way, we could attract back the conglomerates as well as new foreign investors to invest in agri-based manufacturing sooner.


Second, our policy of extended and excessive trade controls stifled competition, fostered hoarders and smugglers, and made government complacent in pursuing productivity improvement in step with our neighbors. Our new direction must be to provide aggressive and appropriate support to our farmers to improve productivity and international competitiveness across the board. Trade openness is critical, as lack of it stunted the sector and pushed up domestic costs and prices progressively higher than border prices over three decades. This deprived our poor of food security and proper nutrition, especially young children. We may provide calibrated tariff protection as needed, not government import controls that historically bred corruption, cartels, and complacency. Transitional cash subsidies could be provided so farmers can recover any losses while government eases them into lower costs via genuine productivity-raising support. This support is best provided in the form of public goods like irrigation, postharvest, and transport facilities whose benefits are long term, and less as farm inputs like fertilizer and seeds good for only one cropping season. Improved access to farm finance is crucial.


Third, despite mandated subsidiarity via devolution since 1991, the DA stuck with top-down management and one-size-fits-all solutions that only led to massive inefficiencies, resource misallocation and leakage, and neglect for promising strategic farm products. As intended under devolution, DA must work through the provinces, which must take charge of managing farms and fisheries, and in turn, take responsibility and accountability for coordinating assistance to farmers and fishers by the municipalities under them. DA must limit itself to steering, as the local governments do their rightful role of rowing. To this end, the DA under the previous administration had already rolled out the Province-led Agriculture and Fisheries Extension System or Pafes, which has picked up steam and shows a better way to truly help our farmers stand shoulder to shoulder with their Asean counterparts. That way, imports need not be feared, but seen as healthy competition to keep us on our toes, keep prices low, and give more food security to our poor.

In sum, Mr. Secretary, three S words define the top strategies you must spearhead to correct those age-old flaws: Scale, Support, and Subsidiarity. We are here to help you.

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TAGS: department of agriculture, Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr., No Free Lunch

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