Okay, city boys, start planting, raising fish

City dwellers are mocking Agriculture Secretary William Dar. With looming global food crisis he exhorted Filipinos, including urbanites, to plant, fish and raise animals. Cosmopolites are adept in trades and professions, but inexpert in farming, aquaculture and livestock. They live in cramped apartments or condos. “Where will I raise my favorite foods – shrimps and pork?” quipped a broadcaster. Most cities forbid raising of food animals.

The only farmers, fish and animal raisers in cities are those who fled rural penury. They’ve turned to odd jobs. Wives work as housemaids. Dar’s four years of agricultural over-importing drove them out of work. Smuggling of grains, vegetables, fruits, fish, pork and poultry further worsened their plight. National and local governments took too long to help them rebuild homes, farms, fishpens, boats and barns wrecked by typhoons. The average age of Filipino farmers is 60.

Dar attributes the impending food shortage to the pandemic, the Ukraine war and surging oil prices. COVID-19 slowed down global trade, including of farm machineries, animal feeds and ingredients, aquaculture and fishing implements.

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to fertilizer shortage worldwide. Fertilizer’s main component is nitrogen derived from natural gas, of which Ukraine is among the largest producers. With Ukrainian gasfields idled, farmers around the world are stockpiling what’s left.

The war delayed the planting of wheat, of which Ukraine again and surrounding countries are the main producers. The UN forecasts a global shortage. People will shift to other grains as staple, primarily rice. Rich countries will buy up stocks from India and Southeast Asia. Poor Philippines will be elbowed out of the queue. ASEAN friends will be unable to help. Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, the usual rice suppliers to the Philippines, are suffering reduced harvests. Thirteen dams in China divert water from the Mekong River, greatly reducing farm and fishpond output in the delta and other plains downstream.

Fertilizer rates in the Philippines already had doubled before the pandemic. Hardly any help came from the government. The Ukraine war further pushed up prices. Still no action. The Rice Tariffication Law of 2019 failed to bring down prices to pre-2016 levels, the Federation of Free Farmers laments.

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When African Swine Fever struck Luzon, Dar massively imported pork but at reduced tariff. Ignored were hog-raisers who needed the collections to cover their costs of replacing diseased stocks. When poultry prices rose due to expensive feeds and electricity, Dar massively imported chicken, again at low duties. The domestic industry suffered.

At the onset of the 2021 yearend fishing ban, Dar insisted on importing fish from China, hundreds of thousands of tons. Opposition from commercial fleet owners, artisanal fishermen and fish growers was ignored. Pens and ponds were brimming with tilapia and bangus good for seven months. When Super Typhoon Odette hit the Visayas and Mindanao in the first quarter of 2022, Dar again insisted on importing more fish from China, supposedly “to increase production.” No one thought of helping fisherfolk repair broken bancas.

Vegetable smuggling from China demoralized local growers. They had to throw away millions of kilos of produce because of the unfair competition and costly transportation. In the ensuing Senate investigative hearings, all snubbed by Dar, he was revealed to be applying for reappointment in the next administration. He now hails as doable that next admin’s promise of P20-rice, something he never achieved to begin with.

Filipinos suffered rice shortage in the early years of martial law, 1973-74. Rich and poor queued to buy stocks mixed with ground corn. To avert a repeat, Dar wants to increase the National Food Authority buffer stocks from seven to 30 days. Good idea. A city boy planting rice in his living room would take a hundred days to harvest.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

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