MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network): With just days before he sits as agriculture secretary, President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr will have to contend with numerous challenges that threaten the country’s food supply and stymied the growth of the farm sector for decades.
Outgoing Agriculture Secretary William Dar on Tuesday said the first order of business for the Marcos administration would be to ensure sufficient food supply amid the looming global food crisis.
Dar said the country would feel the brunt of the impending food crisis in the last quarter of 2022 as the Covid-19 pandemic and the protracted Russia-Ukraine war continue to disrupt the delivery of food products across the globe.
“More than 20 countries have made restrictions on the exports of their food products, and the lingering war in Ukraine continues. So there is really a major disruption of the food supply chain. And so this is a big, big problem. If I have to equate this, this is like a pandemic as well,” he pointed out.
Compounding this is the fact that rice production in the first semester declined by 6 percent, which Dar attributed to the low usage of fertilizer, the cost of which has risen sharply.
Figures from the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority showed the average price of urea, the most commonly used fertiliser, had nearly tripled to about P3,000 a 50-kilo bag from only P1,200 a year ago.
One of Marcos’ campaign promises is to bring down the price of rice to P20 a kilo, an aspiration he seeks to fulfill during his administration.
However, rising fertiliser cost is expected to make rice more expensive than they are now.
As a rule of thumb, the retail price of rice is at least double the farm-gate price of palay. Figures from the Federation of Free Farmers Cooperatives showed that if palay would be bought at the National Food Authority (NFA) price of P19 a kilo, the cost of palay alone to produce a kilo of rice would already reach P30.78.
A kilo of rice is produced from 1.62 kilos of palay. Add to this storage, freight, marketing, profit margins of traders, and other costs, and the retail price reaches the current P38 a kilo.
Agriculture Undersecretary Fermin Adriano said earlier the government has two options to bring down rice prices: increase productivity by providing subsidies, especially for fertilizer and import the staple from countries with efficient farming systems and much lower production costs.
Former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito has also cited various issues the incoming administration will face in the agriculture sector.
He pointed to the urgent challenge of easing the supplies of pork and keeping prices down amid the continuing problem with African swine fever.
Another is addressing the supply of fish in the country, including ensuring ready access to fishing grounds in the West Philippine Sea being claimed by China. The government has been importing fish to augment local supply and prevent prices from rising.
The Department of Agriculture (DA) should move “toward greater diversification and away from excessive focus of attention and budget on rice” and ramp up agricultural exports, Habito added, urging the DA to work better with provincial agricultural officers so the “latter can take the lead in nurturing our farmers toward much greater productivity.”
Meanwhile, more farmers’ groups on Tuesday welcomed the decision of Marcos to head the agriculture department.
According to Jansept Geronimo, spokesperson for the Kilusan Para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Panlipunan (Katarungan), Marcos’ pronouncement reflected a “profound crisis confronting the agriculture sector that should be addressed with urgency and decisively at the highest level of governance.”
“But unless he recognizes the fundamental problem besetting the agriculture sector, [that is], the [rice import] liberalisation policy that deprioritized support for local food producers, it is difficult to expect that there will be genuine change in the country’s farming sector,” Geronimo said in a statement on Tuesday.
He said rice farmers should get the support they need from the government: subsidized inputs, technology access, and a support price for palay.
Geronimo urged Marcos to increase the budget for agriculture, noting that “it will be difficult to expect the sector to rise above the crisis due to the meager funds for its development.”
He also asked Marcos to review the policy of converting agricultural lands into non-agricultural uses.
In Batanes province, Marcos’ decision was a welcome development for Ricardo Alcantara, manager of the Itbayat Animal Breeding Station, saying it was “a brilliant move [and] no congressman or senator involved in the cartel of rice, fertilizer and feed will dare oppose his programmes.”
Farmers groups in the different parts of the Visayas also welcomed the decision.
“My only hope is he will also push for the modernisation of the agriculture sector to help us poor farmers,” said Hermogenes Alvarez, president of the Merida Farmers Association in Merida town in Leyte.
“I hope he will institutionalize programs which can help secure the agriculture sector and the sugar industry’s sustainability for the benefit of thousands of marginal farmers,” added Enrique Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters.
Rojas recalled that when Marcos was governor of Ilocos Norte, he boosted rice and corn yields in his province, and when he became a senator, he also authored bills which supported agriculture.
Among the agriculture-related bills Marcos filed during his term as senator from 2010 to 2016 were Senate Bill No. 14 or the proposed National Irrigation Program of 2013, SB 112 or the proposed National Seeds Production Act, SB 1863 or the proposed Anti-Rice Wastage Act, and SB 409 or the proposed Philippine Soybean Authority Act.
During the 16th Congress, he was a member of the committees on agrarian reform and on agriculture and food as well as the agricultural and fisheries modernization and congressional oversight committee on agrarian reform.
“He hails from an agricultural province and since he is the president, he could allocate more funds for this sector. I think this will be very good for the agriculture sector,” Manuel Lamata, president of the United Sugar Producers Federation of the Philippines.
Negros Occidental Vice Gov Jeffrey Ferrer also welcomed Marcos’ move to become the secretary of agriculture.
“Agriculture is vital to our food security. The president is the best person to take care of this sector,” he said.
Magsasaka Rep. Argel Cabatbat is optimistic that Marcos’ leadership of the DA would stop erring officials who allow the smuggling of agricultural products.
“If the incoming President will be the secretary, it is likely that those allowing the illegal entry of vegetables and other agricultural products will stop their activities,” Cabatbat said over dzRH.