Agri sector: Prioritize not trivialize
FULL DISCLOSURE - Fidel Abalos (The Freeman) - November 11, 2019 - 12:00am

Last week, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) reported that the “the economy grew at a faster pace in the third quarter as the government spent more for projects, the agriculture sector recovered and services remained a strong contributor.” Consequently, “the economy’s growth – as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP) – accelerated to 6.2 percent, in line with market expectations”, it added.

However, though it claimed that this quarter’s growth is faster than the second quarter’s growth of 5.5 percent and last year’s third quarter growth of six percent and that the agriculture sector also recovered, the fact remains that the year-to-date average is just 5.8 percent or a shade below the lower end of the government’s full-year growth target of six to seven percent.

Clearly, as has always been the case, the service and industry sectors are driving the economy as, among others, tourism, business process outsourcing and gaming activities continued to contribute and government spending on infrastructure are sped up. Despite the reported recovery in the third quarter, however, the reality that the agriculture sector remains dormant or downright a consistent poor performer obtain.

Indeed, looking intently at these numbers, the agriculture sector remained disappointing.  In recent years, we saw the rise of the service sector and the fall of the agriculture sector. To recall, in just a few years, we saw the drop of the agriculture sector from a contribution to our GDP of around 10% down to a little over 7% last year. Adding to such woes, the labor force in the same sector went down from what used to be in the vicinity of 30% to just 26%.

This reduction in the labor force should have been better if this was due to modernization or mechanization of the country’s agriculture. Apparently, however, it is not, as the contribution of the sector to our economy went down to just a little over 7%. If there is one obvious reason, it is due primarily to rural exodus. It simply means, farmers or farm workers left their farms and tried their luck in highly urbanized areas. The mean reason, abject poverty.

Notably, majority of those in dire strait are in the agriculture sector. In fact, if examined closely, those who are mired in poverty in the highly urbanized cities’ slum areas are rural migrants. These are offshoots of the continuing rural exodus on account of the feeling and perception of helplessness in the countryside.

We can’t blame them. Remember, for decades now, despite bragging about being an agricultural country, we’ve been experiencing food shortages. Ironically, all these decades, this concern has been provided with temporary solutions like rice importation and government subsidy. All of which are non-farmer-productivity-related.

Quite frankly, there had been multitudes of perceived solutions to these woes (that didn’t work out) that were presented on the table. Notably, however, something different was broached earlier this year. To recall, NEDA was urging colleges and universities “to improve their course offerings on agriculture-related programs and make them attractive to the young generation.”  Honestly, that was the first time that we heard this kind of proposal. Unlike the usual “fire-fighting” approaches in solving the agriculture sector’s woes, this happens to be the more lasting solution.

This call was made by NEDA-7 regional director Efren Carreon “on account of a weak agricultural production in the region.” He emphasized too that the “concern of ageing farmers is a huge threat to the region’s agricultural sector.” Notably, he also said that “the interest to enroll in agri-related courses among students is declining.”

We can’t help but agree with these observations. Since “the thrust of the national government now is moving towards mechanization”, according Director Carreon, then, in this new approach, we can see a glimmer of hope.

Agreeably, it is through mechanization, by way of educating the younger generation, that we will be able to solve our problems in agriculture. Yes, with emphasis on educating young children and making courses in agriculture attractive to them by making it prospectively “economically attractive”, we can probably see soon the best minds joining the profession.

Also, as the younger generation are “digital natives”, incorporating information technology (which is massively used by farmers in Japan) into the course can also generate more interest. More importantly, the scholarships (such as the DA’s Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund), that are currently offered will, likewise, give this initiative the needed boost.

By doing this, we can truly say that we are no longer trivializing the agriculture sector, we are prioritizing it.

NATIONAL ECONOMIC AND DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
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