The agriculture secretary

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

One may argue that the 100 honeymoon days are not over yet, if you count the actual days the President has seated himself as concurrent agriculture chief. Still, with the way things are shaping up, missing a few more days does not really matter much.

President Marcos or PBBM has, at almost every turn of pursuing his official duties, never failed to mention the need to modernize Philippine agriculture. With the call of the times for countries to prioritize food security in the face of a global crisis, this makes his pitch sensible and timely.

Beyond being relevant to current events, however, the problem with Philippine agriculture is one that has long plagued the country, even as far back with former president Ramon Magsaysay who is considered to have made a breakthrough in introducing agricultural reforms in the country.

So much has been said about agriculture’s compounded ills that goes back to the Spanish era when haciendas and hacienderos dominated the landscape, and which has progressed to its current complicated status when the Americans took power, to the time we gained independence and became a republic.

Even PBBM’s father, who was president for more than two decades starting in 1965, had failed to introduce the right reforms to uplift farmers and strengthen their bonds with agriculture, and consequently contribute to national economic growth.

Now that PBBM has decided to act as agriculture chief, however temporary this may be, expectations have been raised on just what he can accomplish given the crisis brought about by a pandemic and economic disruptions from monumental global problems.

‘Unprecedented’ increase

For starters, from the time PBBM declared his intentions to lead the reform of Philippine agriculture, it sent signals to lawmakers to approve a proposed 40 percent increase in next year’s departmental budget to P184.1 billion, and thus make agriculture one of the main drivers of the country’s economic growth.

The Lower House has just signed off on the proposed agriculture spending for next year, and this should pass without much ado at the Senate level when it opens deliberations on the proposed P5.6 trillion national expenditure budget next month.

Such “unprecedented” increase in the Department of Agriculture’s budget, as described by some House officials, is seen as an all-out support of PBBM being the concurrent agriculture secretary. Generously hiked amounts have been allocated to just about all sectors of agriculture, and while some critics says this is still not enough to assure for the needed modernization, it will nonetheless leave a definitive mark in introducing change, especially if the budget is properly spent.

That said, a continued increase in budgetary appropriations for agriculture should be expected in the coming years, leading well into PBBM’s last years, if significant gains are to be seen with regards lowered food prices and increased production.

Meanwhile, the DA and its attached agencies should have the breathing space to introduce the more important platforms for structural reforms in later years to ensure the sustainability of food security programs.

It will still be a long hill to climb, which will most likely involve passing a few landmark laws to set up the needed structural changes where just about every aspect of agriculture, from farming to fishing to livestock growing, will become profitable for those who invest in it.

Hopefully this time, as long as the President continues to push for needed reforms, the past mistakes in agriculture -- compounded through centuries of mismanagement -- can be undone.

Crisis response

Addressing the supply shortage crisis of food commodities during the first three months of PBBM’s term has not exactly reflected well on his stint as agriculture secretary. For one, it reflects poorly on the President’s crisis response abilities.

How the sugar shortage had escalated, leaving several big food manufacturers grappling with a supply lack and consequently higher prices, is a clear realization that the President personally must improve his skills in being sensitive to “little” things (like timing importations of commodities) to avert market disruptions.

It is perhaps a welcome move on his part to appoint former DA Secretary Domingo Panganiban as senior undersecretary, a post seen by many as an attempt to delegate the nitty-gritty, day-to-day concerns at the department to someone with extensive experience.

PBBM has shown an aversion to actually being herded to disaster areas, the latest being Typhoon Karding, whose damage to agricultural lands rose to over P2 billion. Neither is he quick to speak about a disaster’s immediate effect on food security – which are routine responses expected of an agriculture head.

He should do well to acknowledge his limitations and resort to appropriate solutions that will result in the desired responses. Delegating and empowering others to do his job should not diminish his popularity or demean his capabilities.

In Philippine agriculture, natural disasters — and there are plenty in a year — more often leads to food shortages and high prices. These are realities that the agriculture secretary or his designate must be seen as personally responding to.

Long-term plan

At the very least, within the next three months, the President, as agriculture secretary, owes us a more detailed game plan of what he plans to do to revitalize agriculture to make it truly a solid contributor to economic growth and the champion of food security for a growing nation.

All we’ve heard so far are short-term solutions, such as funneling cash aid to farmers and fishers, but no hard defined targets that would move them to raise their productivity.

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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 [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.


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