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Opinion

BBM the agri temp

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Joseph Estrada, when he became president, concurrently held the interior and local government portfolio for a year.

This was to ensure the continuation of his work when he was vice president. Serving as Fidel Ramos’ anti-crime czar reminded the public of Erap’s screen roles as heroic action star. The reel image helped propel Erap to Malacañang.

Today romanticized images of politicians disseminated on social media vie with show business mythmaking in influencing election outcomes. But this is another story.

The focus these days is on Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s decision to take the agriculture portfolio “at least for now” when he assumes the presidency.

Erap’s decision in 1998 showed the importance he gave to finishing his battle against the kidnap-for-ransom groups that targeted mostly the Tsinoy community.

Within his abbreviated tenure as president, Erap won that war, largely thanks to his top cop, Panfilo Lacson, whose idea of “neutralizing” threats to public safety is similar in some aspects to that of Rodrigo Duterte.

In the case of Bongbong Marcos, the speculation surrounding his decision to take on the agriculture portfolio inevitably focuses on his campaign spiel about bringing rice prices down to P20 per kilo.

BBM’s camp has since dialed down the campaign promise to an “aspiration” – something that even the current secretary of agriculture has said, in so many words, will need a miracle to attain in the near future.

Here lies a risk for the incoming president, who will be facing not just a looming food crisis but also a continuing public health crisis plus a long festering crisis in education. There is also the record-high P12.76-trillion debt he is inheriting from his predecessor, although his economic managers are downplaying it and would not call it a debt crisis.

His Super Ate Imee has acknowledged that BBM faces frighteningly high public expectations. And those expectations are highest in his most remarkable aspiration for P20 per kilo rice.

Attaining that aspiration could require someone close to being a miracle worker.

*      *      *

As BBM himself has correctly observed, the agriculture sector has “severe” problems.

The risk in taking the helm of the Department of Agriculture (DA) is that he will get all the blame – and I mean all, even if Russia’s Vladimir Putin brings the world close to Armageddon – if things get worse in the sector.

Also, the pressure to produce solid accomplishments in the sector, and ASAP, could distract BBM from the many other urgent issues demanding the attention of the nation’s highest official.

The DA has jurisdiction not only over crops, livestock, poultry and dairy production but also fisheries and aquatic resources, agribusiness and agroforestry.

To boost rice production, BBM will need to rethink agrarian reform – meant to empower the marginal farmers who account for the overwhelming majority of those engaged in the sector.

Our archipelago is still largely agricultural, but the farm sector continues to be associated with subsistence farming and hand-to-mouth existence, except for the handful of large agricultural estates.

Ricelands are lying fallow, including the spectacular Banaue rice terraces, as youths see no bright prospects in a life of farming.

Magtanim ay di biro; planting rice is never fun: this was a ditty we learned in childhood. Today, this is the reality for many youths in farming households.

Even with mechanization, farmers lament that the machinery and other support services promised under the Rice Tariffication Act have not reached them. The farmers are asking incoming temp DA secretary BBM to revisit the rice tariffication law.

Small plots of land for the landless, without sufficient farm support at every step from crop production to harvesting, marketing and bringing the commodities to consumers, largely failed to deliver the promised emancipation of peasants from poverty.

Incentivizing the creation of farm cooperatives is supposed to provide small farmers the advantages of economies of scale.

To give us an idea of how the concept has fared after many years, the approach is now being repackaged as the creation of “mega farms” – as proposed by the guy in charge of the department that is mandated to make agrarian reform work.

Producers of other crops such as onions and carrots, meanwhile, are complaining of another problem: unabated agricultural smuggling. The same complaint has been raised by those in the fisheries and aquaculture sector as well as poultry and livestock producers.

*      *      *

The dairy sector has a different problem: insufficient domestic production. Promoting carabao breeding was one worthy idea of Joseph Estrada; the carabao center in Nueva Ecija needs more support.

Greater local milk production will bring down the cost of milk formula for infants and milk used for supplemental feeding in public elementary schools. Prices of infant milk formula are so steep the containers are kept in locked display cases in some supermarkets because of the high incidence of shoplifting of these products.

More affordable milk can help reduce physical and mental stunting due to poor nutrition, and ease hunger among children.

Even before the food crisis is upon us, self-rated hunger nationwide, as indicated in reputable surveys, has been distressingly high. DA temp secretary BBM is expected to ease this problem, in addition to providing the P20 a kilo rice and bringing down the price of galunggong, with the GG supplied by local fishermen instead of sourced from China.

Having served as governor of a province with vast agricultural areas, BBM surely has a good grasp of the “severe” problems.

But he will need highly competent persons for the actual day-to-day hands-on management of the DA, even as he manages the enormous public expectations of his presidency.

BBM has already achieved a miracle of sorts, with his family’s spectacular comeback after 36 years. After this feat, anything should be possible.

Perhaps Marcos 2.0 subscribes to the idea that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. Greatness springs from the worst of times and the toughest challenges.

JOSEPH ESTRADA

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