Hope in Philippine agriculture

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Already the world’s biggest rice importer as of last year, the Philippines had to race to import another 300,000 metric tonnes of rice to boost buffer stocks as the economy went into a tailspin with a painful quarantine. The government must now seriously address the pressing need to revitalise the sector and make it a key plank in national recovery efforts. AFP

This may sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: The country needs to revive its agriculture sector. The benefits of such a project are immense – poverty reduction in rural areas through job generation, the decongestion of cities, food security for the country, and export earnings from farm products.

Agricultural production grew by a measly 0.7 per cent last year, nearly the same as the 0.6 per cent growth in 2018. Simply put, the farm sector had virtually zero contribution to the country’s economic growth — but not for lack of trying.

Two years ago, the Duterte administration’s economic team indicated it was taking notice of the need to reverse the dismal performance of the agricultural sector, and said it was time to seriously prioritise farming and fishing.

The main idea put forward was worthy but hardly novel: to provide financial support to the sector. Yet, clearly, bringing the sector to a sustainable growth path requires more than just putting money in the pockets of farmers and fishermen.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas governor Benjamin Diokno, then budget chief, noted that the failure of the agriculture sector to reach its potential was particularly detrimental because the poor are concentrated in rural areas where agriculture is the primary livelihood.

Inadequate policies, vulnerability to natural hazards, and bureaucratic mismanagement through the years have all had a hand in the perennial sluggish performance of the agriculture sector.

But in fact, the policy framework to revive the sector has been in place since December 1997 through the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernisation Act. It prescribed urgent measures to fortify the agriculture and fisheries sectors to enhance their profitability and prepare them “for the challenges of globalisation through adequate, focused and rational delivery of necessary support services [and] appropriating funds”.

Twenty-two years hence, the consequences of the failure to implement that blueprint were brought to the fore with the massive disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As farm produce failed to reach consumers and supply chains got choked up as much of the world went into lockdown, the country woke up to its vulnerability in terms of food security and sustainability.

Already the world’s biggest rice importer as of last year, the Philippines had to race to import another 300,000 metric tonnes of rice to boost buffer stocks as the economy went into a tailspin with a painful quarantine. In the same quarter, the agriculture sector slid further, registering a 3.6-per cent year-on-year decline in rice harvest.

The government must now seriously address the pressing need to revitalise the sector and make it a key plank in national recovery efforts. Farmers and fisherfolk, for starters, need infrastructure support – irrigation, farm-to-market roads, better transport system for their produce. They also require an adequate, affordable, and efficient rural credit system that will eliminate informal lenders who charge usurious rates.

Agricultural revival, however, cannot rely solely on the government. The private sector should be enticed to help, by developing the supply chain connecting agriculture input suppliers to farmers/fisherfolk, then to consumers, and hopefully the export markets.

Large conglomerates have the financial muscle to modernise agriculture, by taking advantage of the benefits of cooperativism, for instance. A number of private corporations have partnered with farmers’ groups through contract farming instead of simply leasing farmlands. This win-win setup assures private firms of stable supply and the farmers of a guaranteed market/buyer for their produce.

Reviving agriculture will also not work if the number of farmers continues to decline. Here should come in policies to lure more young Filipinos to take up agriculture courses. Experts have long sounded the call to make agriculture attractive again – mainly by making agribusiness ventures profitable propositions.

Agriculture secretary William Dar has called on returning overseas Filipino workers to become “agripreneurs”, encouraging them with incentives, free training and marketing assistance, and interest-free credit to start operations.

A revitalised countryside offers the hope that rural folk who migrated to the cities may be lured back to their home provinces, thus easing congestion in urban areas and helping redistribute economic productivity.

The Agriculture and Fisheries Modernisation Act declared as a policy that the government shall enable those who belong to the agriculture and fisheries sectors to participate and share in the fruits of development, by establishing a more equitable access to assets, income, basic and support services, and infrastructure. Now is the best time to implement this modernising measure, on the cusp of a changed world.

Editorial/PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK