Agri needs competent management
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - July 2, 2019 - 12:00am

It’s no secret that several members of President Duterte’s all-powerful economic team have had disagreements with outgoing Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, one even commenting that the beleaguered Cabinet official should get his act together before anything else.

This was in reference to statements by Piñol criticizing some members of the economic team for not supporting the programs proposed by the Department of Agriculture (DA) meant to boost the agriculture sector’s performance, and in part justifying its poor performance over the last two years.

While Piñol continues to be a trusted friend of the President, who one time had at best defended his Mindanao kababayan to be someone who is untainted by corruption, it was increasingly difficult to ignore his consistently poor performance since 2016.

Last year, the agri sector managed to grow by only 0.8 percent, far lower than the set target of four percent, and contributing only 0.1 percent to the gross domestic production (GDP). During the first quarter of this year, growth was monitored at only 0.67 percent, an alarming harbinger of what to expect for 2019.

The pressure to grow the agricultural sector is now even greater after the Philippine economy missed its target growth during the first quarter, chalking only 5.6 percent resulting from the budget impasse during the first three months of the year and the ban on public spending in April because of the elections.

Catch-up plan

The economic team is now focused on implementing a catch-up plan to ensure that the performance during the next three quarters would be enough to steer an economic growth of between six to seven percent for the whole year. This could be challenging when a big part of the administration’s recovery scheme hinges on ramped-up public spending in the agricultural sector.

Piñol presented a 2019 catch-up plan centering on the distribution of certified rice seeds and fertilizers to improve palay yields, the expansion of corn and sorghum fields by 100,000 hectares each, again through the distribution of seed and fertilizers too, and the expansion of vegetable farming in some 50,000 hectares of land in Mindanao.

Piñol, likewise, proposed the importation of 300,000 MT of corn at zero tariff for the poultry and livestock sectors, to be released in the market only before and after the local harvest season. He also bared the DA plan to help set up 300 fish cages per region funded from the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF) lending program.

Competent management

Strictly speaking, all these extra initiatives should contribute to the 3.5 percent growth target by the DA as originally set for this year, but it seems the economic team will be happy to see even just a two percent growth, which would be a big improvement already from the 2018 and the 2019 first quarter performances.

The government sorely needs a competent agriculture czar (or czars) who will be able to translate the goal of revitalizing the sector over the medium term with a doable plan, and thus shedding the shackles of neglect by previous administrations.

Up for serious consideration should be the division of the DA into two or three distinct entities to speed up the work of transforming development in the different areas of interest. This model has been effective for Indonesia and Malaysia.

With one or two new departments, new blood may be infused to counter the current malaise in the DA bureaucracy. With dynamic leadership, we may see poverty in the rural areas decreasing.

Increasing productivity

There must be long-term plan that is measurable. For example, which areas need better or new irrigation facilities? How many farmer groups now can manage their irrigation systems with minimal intervention from the National Irrigation Authority?

The same goes for machineries for farmland productivity or for fishing. Are there adequate tractors, tillers, harvesters, mechanical dryers, threshers and milling equipment for each farm community, or fiberglass-hulled boats and small engines for fishing villages?

Is infrastructure adequate to enable producers to bring their produce to markets at the quickest time and least cost? Roads, cold storage plants, refrigerated trucks, and improved port services are just a few of the requirements for an efficient network.

Increasing productivity of all subsectors is a must, and there is no better time than now to start introducing technology innovations that are easy to adopt in farming, fishing, and livestock growing. Only by getting more yields will incomes be attractive enough to reverse the exodus of people and investment.

Strengthening agro-entrepreneurship

More importantly, there must be a plan to link agricultural produce to enterprises. No better example can be cited than the recent bumper harvest of mangoes. 

Mango processing plants – for dried fruits, juice, and concentrates – should have been ready to receive the two million kilograms of surplus harvest, especially since a cyclical pattern had already been established for this phenomenon. Our mangoes are well-received globally, whether fresh or processed.

Transforming key areas of production into enterprises should be in the works. For years, calamansi growers from the MIMAROPA area have struggled to break free from the simple harvesting and marketing cycle. Calamansi juice and processed derivatives should be a welcome export product. The same goes for abaca from the Bicol region, bananas from Mindanao, and coffee from the Cordilleras.

For the fisheries sub-sector, we have bangus and tilapia that are already being cultivated by local producer-entrepreneurs. But we should take pride in our crabs and shrimps that are best eaten when freshly caught, but can be processed for export.

There is so much potential for our agri sector, and this is not just to secure food self-sufficiency, but to contribute to overall economic growth as well.

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