Rolling Piñol
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - November 30, 2016 - 12:00am

Among the many cabinet members in the Duterte administration, Secretary Manny Piñol is someone who hit the ground running, has been on a roll, and allegedly, now running over the old guards and old ways of the Department of Agriculture.

For starters, Secretary Piñol immediately made use of media particularly radio to give people a “real time” – “on the ground” update on where he is, what he is dealing with and the problems or people he is facing or tackling for that day, week or month. Piñol is one of the very few if not the only cabinet member who has the experience and know-how to connect and use media to get his message across. As a result the Department of Agriculture somehow manages to make its presence felt in the public radar in spite of Malacañang’s historical and habitual concentration on the President and the Press Secretary.

If the Duterte administration is going to be known for services other than neutralizing drug dealers, then the rest of the cabinet members should pick up a few lessons from Secretary Piñol whose rogue-like media engagement clearly benefits his department and gives first hand information on what the Secretary’s office is doing. The pretty boys at the Press Secretary’s office may be doing their best being “The Explainers” but their communications design or the lack of it does nothing for informing the public about other government programs and services.

Going back to Secretary Piñol, judging from his many trips all over the country for consultation and visual verification, the DA Secretary has probably out-travelled and racked up more miles locally than the Secretary of Tourism. Some will not approve of this but from my personal experience, the only way to understand the state of Philippine agriculture is on the ground by meeting with farmers, growers, consolidators and other stakeholders. 

Last year, I spent several months on the road with BMeg personnel and officials and those trips made me realize that certain provinces have too much of certain products but lack in others resulting in gluts or low farm gate prices. But local officials don’t try to rationalize matters. Instead they are more interested in urbanization that poses a threat to our food security. The trips made me understand the impact of smuggling, how generalizations made by an Agriculture department official can crash prices and destroy the business of many backyard farmers who’ve invested OFW earnings in hog raising. I learned that policies and standards on where and who slaughters pigs for the market are made more for the profit of local officials but ends up as an added burden and cost to farmers and vendors as well as a risk of spreading disease by transporting live animals across provinces.

I saw first hand how the government’s failure to promote and provide vaccination against poultry diseases resulted in hundreds of millions lost for chicken farmers while consumers had to pay higher prices from the resulting shortages. I also saw how INUTILE it was for local agriculture and veterinary doctors to declare quarantines after the flocks have been decimated. How do you even impose a quarantine or ban on the movement of certain livestock in a country of 7,100 islands? We can’t even surround rebels on one island! 

I also learned how, because of in breeding, the “Native Manok” eventually got smaller and smaller as well as susceptible to disease eventually making them an endangered feature of provincial households. Ironically, rich sabungeros are allowed to import fighting cocks from Peru and the United States, but the rest of us get a hard time from the DA trying to import new stock for real and genuine poultry purposes from around the region.

More recently, I learned that the so-called NFA rice is more myth than reality since you can’t find it in most cities or towns and if it does exist, dealers are accused of mixing it in with better varieties as “fillers” or extenders in every sack.

Because of all the stuff I learned on the road, I certainly support Secretary Piñol’s constant journeys especially because it gives taxpayers and stakeholders a chance to meet up with the highest official of the DA and let him know their needs and concerns. For the record, I have never met or spoken personally with Secretary Piñol. I did get to interview him more than a decade ago when I was on radio and who would have imagined then that the Mindanao politician and boxing commentator would one day become a cabinet member.

Now that he has had a head start through media engagements as well as meet ups with stakeholders, it might be wise for the Secretary to get his Assistant Secretaries and Under Secretaries as well as PIOs to start going public as well, and help in the dissemination of information, explaining policies as well as procedures because there have been growing murmurs about what observers call “political appointments” as rewards, the Secretary being surrounded by vested interest, and being too eager to please certain sectors. Another thing I heard is that “Secretary Piñol tends to prescribe solutions before fully understanding the problem and considering the repercussions of available solutions.”

All that of course may be “unsolicited advise,” unwarranted criticism, or more likely what results when the Secretary focuses on giving the headlines but not the full story or the details of why certain key officials have been selected or appointed to offices of the Department of Agriculture such as the NIA, the PCA, etc. Consumers in the know are also asking about back-up programs for food security after Typhoon Lawin ruined the vegetable producing areas of the north. I recently heard harsh criticism about the DA going back to mechanical methods after the DA suspended all import permits for agricultural products because of smuggling which happened after a partylist group met with Piñol. I myself wonder when the DA will reintroduce “gardening” in schools?

I personally support the rogue and somewhat maverick style of Secretary Piñol because we are like-minded, but as a public official who has power and influence over so many sectors of Agriculture, it may be time for the Secretary to get his team to explain and share the details while he pursues the vision of a self sufficient Philippines. Either way let’s support the good and compost the bad ideas.

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