‘Food sovereignty’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Outgoing Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar was not buttering up nor ingratiating himself to President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (PBBM). Dar was simply only too “happy” for the incoming President to take over the DA portfolio. Dar strongly counts on the “political will” that the Department will henceforth wield to steer the country’s agriculture out of the feared looming global crisis on food security.

With no less than the soon-to-be sitting President taking over the DA helm, Dar believes the incoming Chief Executive would indeed be able to reorganize and “to reboot” the government priorities to the country’s badly neglected agriculture sector.

In his press conference last Monday, PBBM announced he would temporarily hold in concurrent capacity as Agriculture Secretary effective June 30 this year. It is on the same day that President Rodrigo Duterte steps down from office to give way to his duly elected successor at Malacanang Palace.

According to Dar, the DA has already completed the transition report that he will turn over to PBBM. In broad strokes, Dar described to us the various policy recommendations and areas of priority concern of the Philippine agriculture during our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday.

First of, Dar underscored the need for the new administration to adopt “Build, Build, Build” program separately for the infrastructure needs of the agriculture sector. Dar called for the application of the Private-Public Partnership (PPP) program to bring in much needed investments to the various Philippine agriculture sectors.

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in our country in March, 2020, Dar took credits for launching the “Plant, Plant, Plant” program that encouraged home-based planting of cash crops to augment family vegetable requirements and income.

Dar called for more collaboration with the national government of the next Congress on much needed remedial measures needed by stakeholders of agriculture to counter the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting disruptions on global food supplies and rising oil prices due to the Ukraine-Russia war. Despite destructions caused by natural disasters to our country’s agriculture, he likewise called attention to the very limited budget support of the government.

For this year, the previous 18th Congress approved only P85.5 billion for DA budget as against P250 billion it proposed. According to Dar, P270 billion is the requested budget ceiling for 2023. “Agriculture has been really neglected. That’s why we have this stunted growth,” he rued.

Dar first served as Agriculture Secretary during the shortened term of former president Joseph Estrada. It was during his first stewardship as DA Secretary when the country’s agriculture sector grew by 6% in the year 2000. The entire sector accounted for the biggest push in the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) under the Estrada administration.

Since then, the Philippine agriculture has not seen such record-setting robust growth.

When he accepted again the DA post and joined the Duterte Cabinet in August, 2019, Dar recalled the African Swine Flu (ASF) threatened to kill the hog industry. Dar even came under fire when the Duterte administration resorted to importing frozen pork meat products to stabilize prices and fill in for the gap pork requirements supply.

Dar noted the repopulation of the hogs all over the country has stabilized the supply of pork in the markets. The DA is just waiting the final testing for the anti-ASF vaccine being developed by Thailand, he revealed. Once proven effective, however, it will be up to PBBM to decide whether Philippine hogs should undergo the same anti-ASF inoculation.

To really boost the productivity, Dar pointed out, this requires not only increasing output. This also needs improving the economies of scale in the production of rice and other high-value crops, aqua-marine fishery, livestock, poultry and other sub-sectors of the country’s agriculture.

For example, he noted, the country currently has 1.1 million hectares of areas without access to irrigation, which could be addressed by putting up new dams. “There should be a ‘Build, Build, Build’ in agriculture. For the next six years, let us complete the 1.1 million hectares,” Dar wished aloud.

Or, he suggested, for the next administration to push projects “to retrofit” existing dams such as secondary and tertiary spillover dams. Thus, he explained, wastage of water is minimized, if not totally prevented, due to the over-filling of dams during typhoon or rainy season in our country. Such rain collection system will make use of overflow water for aqua or marine culture; flood control, and for other purposes, he added.

He recalled having given this direction already to the National Irrigation Administration (NIA). This agency, he sighed in relief, was restored by President Duterte under his Department just two months ago. The late president Benigno Simeon “PNoy” Aquino III placed NIA in May, 2014 under the Office of the President (OP) along with the Food Terminal Inc. (FTI) and several other DA attached agencies. These were all transferred to a new office created for PNoy’s political ally, then graduating Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan as presidential adviser on food security and agriculture modernization (PAFSAM).

Taking note of PBBM’s declared intention “to go back to the basics,” Dar cited the need to put these agencies back to the DA. Dar could only attest to many other “political accommodations” he had to work with. “Battle-scarred,” Dar tried his best. But his best was not good enough to run the DA given his situation.

Obviously, however, PBBM is well aware about it. In fact, he wants “to retool” the DA if it is to manage very well the “value chain” of the Philippine agriculture.

With the PBBM’s top priority concern placed upon on the Philippine agriculture, Dar fearlessly forecast Filipinos would attain “food sovereignty,” not just food security.



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