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Opinion

Agriculture miracle

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

It’s good to see the secretary of agriculture visiting the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna.

Set up in 1960 with funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, IRRI is where extensive research and development led by agronomist Henry Beachell and plant pathologist Peter Jennings of the US, Filipino researcher Rodolfo Aquino and Japanese rice scientist Akira Tanaka produced in 1966 the so-called miracle rice – IR8 – with yields of up to 10 times more than the traditional varieties.

Developed from the genetic combination of a high-yield rice variety from Indonesia and a sturdy dwarf strain from China, IR8 has been credited for helping reduce global hunger.

But IR8 reportedly has an inferior taste and tends to become hard after cooking. IRRI has continued working on other rice varieties with better taste and texture, which are more resistant to pests, droughts and floods, or have a low glycemic index so the staple can be safe for diabetics.

IRRI helped develop the genetically engineered “Golden Rice” that is meant to address Vitamin A deficiency especially among young children.

Golden Rice has drawn flak from anti-GMO groups, but it was declared safe for human consumption in 2018 by authorities in Canada and the US. It was approved for human and animal consumption in 2019 in the Philippines, which became the first country in South and Southeast Asia to approve its commercial propagation.

Let’s hope President Marcos, in his IRRI visit, saw more than just an opportunity to recreate that photo of his father with then US president Lyndon B. Johnson. And that being concurrent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Marcos will give R&D the necessary support, particularly funding, to produce more miracles in agriculture.

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These days it seems R&D is left pretty much in the hands of the private sector. Mechanical engineer and businessman Henry Lim Bon Liong, whose SL Agritech Corp. is the country’s leading producer of hybrid rice, credits science and technology for the high productivity in his farms, which produce the Doña Maria line of premium rice. SL Agritech exports hybrid rice seeds and premium rice to markets including the US and the Middle East.

Many of the problems now bedeviling Marcos 2.0 are gut issues – shortages of basic agricultural commodities and consequent high prices.

There’s a lot that needs fixing in the agriculture sector. Farms are underproducing and farmers are aging. The impact of global warming on commercial fishing is compounded by inefficiencies in local fisheries. In many areas, politicians or well-connected people are part of the problem, with their families engaged in inefficient and exploitative practices in agribusiness.

Most of the problems call for sustained, long-term structural reforms that enable marginalized farmers, fisherfolk and agroforestry workers to have sustainable livelihoods that lift them out of poverty and break their dependence on political patrons for their survival.

Instead for too long now, there have been two default responses for every shortage and price spike in agricultural products: importation, and subsidies to the poorest sectors.

Importation, as some senators have pointed out, opens opportunities for crooks to make money out of people’s misery.

Subsidies are mainly dole-outs to the largest voting sector in this country, the poor. Subsidies are the preferred approach of politicians whose plans and programs revolve around three-year cycles, with the third focused on getting themselves reelected, or their relatives to replace them.

Dole-outs, with officials often taking a direct hand in the distribution so they can claim personal credit for tax-funded aid, encourage dependency, which comes in useful during elections.

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In this environment, there is little incentive for officials to implement the kind of long-term reforms that can end dependence on political patrons.

This mindset is also a hindrance to the creation of a merit-based society. Politicians prefer to make people dependent on their patronage for appointments and promotions rather than on merit or qualifications for the job. This set-up breeds corruption, incompetence and overall mediocrity in public service.

The national government does produce development plans that require implementation way beyond three or even six years. But such plans can be discarded and projects aborted by a new administration, sometimes with a corruption probe thrown in.

The Supreme Court’s so-called Mandanas ruling, which gave local government units a greater share in national revenue allotments, made planning and implementation of long-term programs even more challenging.

Even crooks in government understand this cycle. A former Bureau of Customs commissioner once told me with a sigh, amid his efforts to weed out corruption in the BOC, that the career personnel were dismissing his campaign as just the latest ningas cogon or flash in the pan.

His aides told him BOC personnel were bragging that they would still be in their posts long after he, being a political appointee co-terminus with the president, would be out of office.

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Marcos’ taking on the agriculture portfolio concurrently with his enormous tasks as President shows the importance he is giving to addressing the crisis in agriculture.

Or maybe he just wants to prove that his “aspiration” for rice at P20 a kilo (and not just in subsidized Kadiwa stores), derided by many agriculture experts, is attainable.

His public pronouncements indicate a recognition that national food security is imperiled when it is heavily dependent on imports for its basic food needs: rice, sugar, salt, wheat for flour, onions, even fish including galunggong or round scad.

The galunggong importation he found unacceptable, BBM said. Yet here we are, importing 25,000 metric tons of fish again including, yes, GG.

Importation is a contentious issue in other agricultural commodities. Perhaps BBM, a GI or genuine Ilocano, can expand the production of Ilocos garlic, to make its price competitive with the cheaper imports mostly from Taiwan, which are larger but of inferior taste.

Pungent shallots from Ilocos also deserve a production boost. The salt beds of Pangasinan, producing world class sea salt, can also be expanded and properly marketed.

But into his six month in power, Marcos is probably seeing some truth in the warning that while he would be credited for successes in the agriculture sector, he would also get the blame for failures. There’s a strong buzz that he will be relinquishing the post soon – if he can find someone who not only is competent, but is also prepared to take the heat.

Blame for P100 a kilo white sugar by Christmas 2022 may not be laid at the door of Malacañang. But the buck will stop with the secretary of agriculture.

IRRI

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