Headless DA no more: Issues in agriculture that Marcos leaves behind

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Headless DA no more: Issues in agriculture that Marcos leaves behind
President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and fishing tycoon Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr.
Graphics by Enrico Alonzo

MANILA, Philippines — President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on Friday decided to relinquish his 17-month hold on the post of agricultural secretary, handpicking fishing tycoon and top campaign donor Francisco Laurel Jr. to replace him.

In appointing Laurel, Marcos finally selects a full-time head of the Department of Agriculture (DA) — a position that he earlier insisted on keeping until “systems are in place” to “guarantee the food supply of the Philippines, that the prices are affordable, and that our farmers make a good living.”

At the time, the president said that people “will just have to put up” with him as DA chief until then.

In the nearly one-and-a-half years that the president kept the post — a move that farmers groups and minority lawmakers repeatedly criticized — what kind of DA is he passing on to the Cabinet latecomer? What issues in the agricultural sector will demand the new agricultural chief’s immediate attention?

Food supply sufficiency, affordability 

Marcos justified his decision to appoint himself as agriculture secretary days into his presidency in June 2022 by saying that "things (need) to move quickly because the events of the global economy are moving very quickly." The president also said that he is managing the DA directly to give "urgent attention" to the sector.

A year and a half later, his successor is entering the DA as prices of basic goods and services, including agricultural products, are surging.

Inflation rose to 6.1% in September — higher than the 5.3% recorded in August — which the Philippine Statistics Authority said is driven partly by skyrocketing food prices.

Around 34 to 39% of Filipino families rate themselves as "food poor" — or poor based on the quality of the food that they eat — based on several surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations starting late 2022.

Meanwhile, a separate survey conducted by Pulse Asia in September found that even as most Filipinos spent more on food in the last three months, over half said they consumed less food in the same period, indicating belt-tightening behaviors in response to the spike in food prices.

The price of rice, a household staple, skyrocketed to a 14-year-high in September, defying the rice price cap imposed by the president without the prior knowledge of his economic managers.

In response to a drop in his approval ratings, Marcos said that it was not “surprising” given that “people are having a hard time.” The president also reiterated his commitment to stabilizing food prices to ensure people have “enough to eat.” 

Smuggling, SRA issues 

The first test of the DA under his leadership — the sugar importation fiasco in August 2022 which evolved into a blame game over the aborted importation of 300,000 MT of sugar — led to the resignation of a career official (now back as DA undersecretary).

Marcos later downplayed the issuance of the allegedly unauthorized sugar order as a "procedural mistake.”

This would happen again months later. Another instance of unauthorized importation of sugar was flagged in May, leading one senator to describe the incident as “government-sponsored smuggling.”

According to the Bureau of Customs in April, around 65% of all criminal complaints it filed in the first quarter of the year were related to the smuggling of agricultural commodities.

The president has twice blamed smugglers and hoarders for the unusual spike in prices of agricultural products this year — during the surging price of onions in the first quarter of the year and again during the rice price surge in September. In both instances, the president said that there would have been “enough supply” if not for those manipulating the crops’ market prices.

RELATED: Marcos contradicts own EO, says smugglers solely driving up rice prices | Philstar.com 

House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro has criticized the president for “implementing (...) mostly band-aid solutions” in response to the problems of the agricultural sector, specifically the reliance on imports of key agricultural products like rice, sugar, onions, and other products.

During the DA's budget briefing at the lower chamber, which the president did not attend, lawmakers criticized the department for constantly turning to imports every time there is a deficit in the supply of agricultural goods.

RELATED: Probe sought on Marcos admin's 'contradictory' rice policies   

Farmers’ and fishers’ plight

Months into the president’s term, farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas criticized Marcos for allegedly “snubbing” farmers’ demands by choosing to primarily consult members of the private sector on proposals to address food security.

At the time in October 2022, KMP Chairperson Danilo Ramos questioned Marcos for consulting the agriculture advisory group under the Private Sector Advisory Council (PSAC), of which Laurel Jr. is a member of.

PSAC was pushing for the “digitalization of agriculture and the development of the supply and value chains,” among other proposals. Members of the PSAC are business leaders in the food processing, livestock, canning and repacking industries.

“These business executives are insulated from high prices and hunger. We cannot expect them to propose solutions that will benefit the majority,” Ramos said.

In early October, initial information hinting at Laurel’s appointment as DA chief prompted fisher group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas to "raise alarm" over the news due to the reported involvement of Laurel’s company, Frabelle Fishing Corp., in reclamation projects.

The fishers’ group also said that Laurel may pursue changes in the government’s fisheries code that will favor the commercial fishing sector at the expense of municipal fisherfolk.

“Farmers and fishers have been calling for the replacement of Marcos Jr. in the DA courtesy of his incompetence and neglect to address the production crisis, don’t get us wrong. But it should be someone who is impartial, deeply integrated, and is capable of addressing the plight of the rural sectors,” PAMALAKAYA said. 

In a new statement on Friday, the fisher group challenged Laurel to prioritize the welfare of local fishers by strengthening local food production and to do away with the government’s reliance on imports.

The group also urged the new DA secretary to provide greater economic assistance to fisherfolk during calamities, ensure the availability of production subsidies and prohibit the conversion and reclamation of coastal communities and fishing grounds that displace fisherfolk.

“These are all doable measures to ensure that the country will not fall short on fisheries production and that our country can be food self-sufficient,” the group said.

Farmers group Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women expresses skepticism about the appointment of a full-time DA chief, seeing it as a political favor and predicting a continued reliance on imports and a lack of support for local agriculture.

"If Marcos Jr., as the president of the country and a former head of this department, couldn't resolve the agriculture and food crisis, now, he's replaced by an oligarchy," Amihan said.

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