Reinvigorating the agriculture sector
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2019 - 12:00am

Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol is often criticized for his scant knowledge of agriculture economics, having been more popular as a journalist and writer – and, with the May 2016 presidential election, a good friend of the elected president.

It has not helped that the country’s worst inflation in a decade had to be during his watch as agriculture secretary,  when runaway prices of rice and vegetables turned out to have been manipulated by traders taking advantage of rising oil prices and the effect of the government’s tax reform initiative.

Piñol also seems to not have come to terms with of the role of the National Food Authority in the emerging regime of rice tariffication, and whether the new law recently signed by the President will indeed be good for the country’s rice self-sufficiency aspirations.

Surprisingly, too, the good secretary had recently pooh-poohed warnings of a more severe El Niño in the country that would affect agricultural lands and produce, as well as the livelihood of millions of farmers affected by a prolonged drought.

Against the backdrop of the rice tariffication law, at least P10 billion per annum will be appropriated for rice farmers, now estimated at just four million, over the next six years to improve their yields and profitability, as well as make them competitive in the world market.

Making rice farmers competitive

The Palace has said that the mechanism for this appropriation under the established Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) is corruption-free. The biggest concern now, however, is the effectiveness of the Department of Agriculture-led programs that will make rice farmers truly competitive.

The RCEF alone, however, seemingly huge will not do the job alone. Under the fund’s guidelines, P5 billion a year will be channeled to farmer associations, registered rice cooperatives, and local government units in the form of rice farming machineries like hand tractors, four-wheel tractors, mechanical transplanters, combine harvesters, dryers, seed cleaners, and single-pass rice mills.

Atleast P3 billion will go to developing, propagating, and promoting inbred rice seeds to rice farmers and organizations through the Philippine Rice Research Institute, and the remaining P2 billion will be made available for lending to rice farmers and cooperatives, as well as for teaching modern methods of farming, seed production, and farm mechanization.

The fund will initially zero in on 1,100 rice-producing communities in the first few years, which should result in a new breed of enlightened rice farmers that are adept at new forms of rice farming, and will be competitive at par with or better than Thailand’s rice farmers.

Essential complementary measures

But we all know that any army of enlightened farmers will not be enough. Years of neglect by the government of the country’s agricultural sector has led to inadequate and crumbling infrastructure to support farmers and fishermen.

Rebuilding old irrigation canals and putting up new ones should be a priority to keep farms well supplied with water. For this, a nationwide water management system must also be in place to ensure that fields, as well as cities have adequate water sources.

Infrastructure support is also needed for more farm-to-market roads, as well as improved shipping efficiency and lower costs to ensure that the produce from farms, fishing communities, and livestock growers get to consumers at lower costs.

Other essential complementary measures should encourage cooperatives to invest in cold storage facilities and technologies that would prolong the life of produce. The private sector, likewise, should be supported to invest in the expansion of existing ports or building new ones.

Focus on resiliency

The country’s economic managers had issued last month a call for the agriculture department to put more focus on improving the sector’s productivity in view of the economy’s vulnerability to any inadequate supply of food and the continuing sluggish performance of the sector.

From a policy point of view, the 0.5 percent growth of the farm sector last year is barely enough to keep up with the population’s expansion, currently estimated at 1.6 percent a year. This is unacceptable especially with the vulnerability that the country as experienced last year with the food supply shortage.

An often-stated reason for the deterioration of the agriculture sector’s gross domestic product contribution, now at just eight percent, aside from the lack of irrigation, are unfavorable weather conditions. Yet, other countries in Southeast Asia similarly experience destruction to farmlands caused by natural calamities.

If we are to heed the pattern of weather changes that the world is currently experiencing, part of preparing our agriculture sector for self-reliance is focusing on resiliency measures that would mitigate the effect of droughts and typhoons.

Improving the crop insurance system for farmers so that they are able to return to planting at the soonest time to recover losses should be given more attention.

Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has warned that El Niño may be longer this year, and this should serve as a advance notice for our government officials to help farmers in affected regions prepare.

Now, more than ever, we should expect our government leaders to be able to lead the country to food self-sufficiency. The Rice Tariffication Law and the RCEF must be seen as measures that will be used to strengthen our rice farms, and eventually the whole agriculture sector.

For the sake of 105 million Filipinos, and those that will be born in the coming decades, we cannot afford to waver on this.

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