As COVID rages, ASF is another wake up call

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2021 - 12:00am

The two-day 2021 National Food Security Summit (NFSS), which would distill discussions that have taken place in the past couple of months at regional levels, begins today with over 1,000 participants meeting – virtually, of course, in cognition of the pandemic.

Last Friday, about a dozen groups critical to the government’s agricultural policies held the Farmers and Fisherfolks Congress 2021 (FFC) to decry what they pointed out as a decades-long abuse and neglect of the agriculture sector through inaction and misplaced policies.

These groups have declared they would boycott the NFSS, which is a pity since their views could have provided important inputs that would have been heard and discussed in addressing issues and formulating future policies that they claim is misguided advice by government economists.

The NFSS in only on its second term, the first one having been held in October 2019 a few months after Agriculture Secretary William Dar assumed office. Being part of an extensive consultative network involving stakeholders in the agriculture sector should be seen as an opportunity not to be wasted.

ASF crisis

Of particular interest during the two-day summit is the rollout of two programs that would control the spread of and eradicate the African swine flu (ASF) at the barangay levels and repopulate the hog farms that had been decimated by the contagious virus.

The ASF epidemic, which has ravaged countless piggeries big and small across the country, has to date led to the culling of more than three million hogs, and which the swine industry estimates to have resulted in more than P100 billion in losses.

The government has been slow to contain the spread of ASF, which started in the middle of 2019 in one backyard farm in Rizal, and has spread largely uncontained through 2020 to more than 2,600 barangays in 12 regions, 46 provinces, and 502 cities and municipalities.

Containment and culling measures by the Department of Agriculture and concerned local governments were largely several steps too late, and without any known medication to fight the virus, the decimation continues and has led to the almost doubling of pork prices by the last quarter of 2020.

Saving the hog industry

With several government programs now in place, including allowing more importation of pork until the end of the year, what should be the biggest hurdles are the availability of funds and implementation details to save the hog industry.

For a nation that loves pork, the widespread shortage of swine meat caused by ASF had elevated inflation levels beyond the government’s target and badly affected the agriculture sector’s contribution to economic growth during the last two quarters.

Clearly, the initial appropriations from the contingent fund of the President and the Quick Response Fund of the Department of Agriculture to contain the ASF spread had not been enough to muster the needed muscle that would have prevented the crisis from further escalating.

Last week, the President used his powers to declare a state of calamity over the whole country to deal with the ASF contagion by allowing local governments to use their calamity funds for quarantine and border controls, as well as other measures, including disease control in hog farms.

How this will effectively play out during the remaining months of the year should be reflected in whether the spread will be controlled and even stopped to allow backyard growers and commercial swine farms to safely start raising pigs again.

Only after a complete eradication of ASF will there be a chance for a new normal where swine growing can bounce back to, and even exceed, pre-ASF levels.

Wake-up call

What happened in the last two years should be a wake-up call for the private sector to adopt stringent measures, including improved biosecurity procedures while growing their swine, to safeguard their farms from future zoonotic diseases.

We live in a world where country borders have become more porous in allowing the spread of diseases that affect both humans and agricultural produce. We need to be more adept at containment measures since we don’t know what the next pandemic would be or when the next zoonosis would strike.

The government is now starting a program to repopulate the country’s swine-raising industry mainly through a P27-billion low-interest loan program through two state-owned banks. The private sector should take advantage of this not only to start afresh, but to modernize its facilities.

More work needs to be done, though, with backyard swine farms that account for 60 percent of the pork that is brought to market, at least before the ASF became a crisis. It will be challenging to bring small hog raisers to adopt measures that tackle threats of livestock diseases.

Growing an agriculture industry

The country needs to keep a razor-sharp focus on growing a healthy agriculture sector, which has of late shown an extreme vulnerability to a host of natural and manmade exigencies, but which is exceedingly vital to future food security and economic growth.

We should be better at using import tariff mechanisms, not only to protect our agriculture sector, but also to maintain the balance needed to ensure that we are able to secure cheap imported foods when local supply is not available.

We enjoin the private sector to lock hands with the DA and the agricultural community to transform the way we grow food into a competitive, science-based, and technology-backed industry. Other countries have done it and there is no reason why we cannot.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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