By Revin Mikhael D. Ochave

THE country’s agricultural output contracted in the first quarter, as production of crops and fisheries dropped, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported on Wednesday.

The PSA said that the value of production of the farm sector — which contributes about a 10th to GDP and a fourth of jobs in the country — fell 1.2% annually compared to the 0.4% growth a year ago and -0.1% in the last three months of 2019.

The first-quarter figure was lower than the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) full-year target of around 2% growth.

“This was attributed to the contraction in crops and fisheries production. On the other hand, livestock and poultry posted production increases during the period. At current prices, the value of agricultural production amounted to P441.2 billion. This was higher by 3.4% from the previous year’s level,” it said.

Rolando T. Dy, executive director of Center for Food and Agri-Business of University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) said he expected the negative agricultural output due to supply and demand disruptions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic affected some agricultural industries such as the hampered logistics of commodities. Another affected part is food demand because urban folks have limited access to markets due to the lockdown,” Mr. Dy said in a mobile phone message.

Pampanga State Agricultural University professor Roy S. Kempis said the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the agriculture sector.

“The outcome for agriculture production is possible to change if the COVID-19 pandemic did not happen,” Mr. Kempis said in a mobile phone message.

Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said the contraction in agricultural output was “expected” after disruptions caused by the Taal Volcano eruption in January and implementation of the closed fishing season in major fishing grounds around Panay Island, Sulu and Palawan.

“We are hopeful of a rebound for the second quarter, despite the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis, as strategic interventions under the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund are expected to bear fruit and closed fishing season is lifted on these rich fishing grounds,” Mr. Dar said in a statement.

Among sub-sectors, fisheries production, which accounted for 12.8% of the total, saw the sharpest decline at 5.2%. The PSA said that lower output was noted in species such as tilapia, yellowfin tuna, seaweed, frigate tuna, and mackerel, among others.

“Fish ports and public markets possibly faced constraints in physical distancing that many of these open and close from time-to-time for disinfection or lockdowns to impose discipline,” Mr. Kempis said.

Crops output, which accounted for 54.9% of the sector’s total production, slid 2.1% in the first quarter. This was led by paddy rice harvest and corn which contracted by 3.6% and 3.4%, respectively.

“The first quarter is normally a low peak. I expected palay production to go up. Perhaps the delayed harvest will be gained in the second quarter,” Mr. Dy said.

UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc. Chief Economist Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion said in a mobile phone message that the Taal Volcano eruption and lower rainfall may have contributed to the decline in output.

Last April, the PSA adjusted its production estimates for palay to 4.25 million metric tons (MT), 0.8% lower than the initial projection and a 3.8% decline year on year from the first quarter of 2019 which stood at 4.42 million MT.

The PSA also estimated that corn production will be 0.9% lower year on year to 2.40 million MT.

The PSA also reported livestock production, which accounted for 17.9% of total production, rose by 0.5% in the first quarter.

“Livestock growth could be just a base effect. The African Swine Fever (ASF) virus outbreak has already took a toll in 2019,” Mr. Dy said.

Hog production rose by 0.7% while goat and dairy production went up by 1.1% and 9.3%, respectively.

In contrast, carabao and cattle production showed 1.9% and 0.5% declines respectively.

Meanwhile, poultry production, which contributed 14.3% of total agricultural output, jumped 3.9%. Chicken production rose by 3.3% while duck production edged up 0.8%.

“The increase in livestock production could be due to the presence of own adequate means and assets by raisers to bring goods from farms to slaughter houses to dressing plants to public and supermarkets and the adequate ability to organize adjustments in making their own means or assets to bring goods from farms to the markets despite many areas closed because of the quarantine,” Mr. Kempis said.