Farmers and economists alike see the urgent need to improve the agriculture sector, mainly with the aim of ensuring food security, and one hopes that 66-year-old William Dollente Dar of Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur may just be the man to get the job done. He is no stranger to the Agriculture portfolio, having once served as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture during the Estrada Administration.
He is a horticulturist, a civil servant, and an academician — a product of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. He had served in government and in local and international organizations that focus on agricultural research and implementing programs to improve agriculture even under harsh conditions in places like Africa and India. And it is during his stint abroad in particular that Dar truly proved his mettle as an administrator.
Dar is no stranger to development politics, and had shown that he was equipped with the skills and experience to bring together various stakeholders to achieve objectives. As head of International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics from 1999 to 2014, he had helped improve investor confidence in the center, its stability, and its annual revenues, despite going against the grain, so to speak.
His efforts resulted in further support for the center from the likes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US, UK, and Indian governments. And despite concerns about the center forming a wide range of partnerships with non-corporate as well as corporate private sector, particularly in India, even an externally commissioned review could not dispute the evidence of stability in the center’s programs and confidence among partners and investors.
In my opinion, this is precisely the kind of person we need at Agriculture now. We need someone who can bring together various sectors and interests and to make them work on a common objective, a goal that benefits all. But the same person should also have the ability to harness the resources needed to implement programs and achieve objectives, and to back his assertions with data and research.
Going over his targets, however, I am worried that Secretary Dar may be setting himself up for a fall. In particular, he aims to double the income of smallholder farmers and fishermen in five years. This may be a tall order, given the number of factors that have an impact on farmer income that are actually beyond the scope and control of the Department of Agriculture. But I am willing to give Dar the benefit of doubt.
However, I totally agree with him that food security should be the urgent primary goal, and that the average annual agricultural sector growth of 1.1% should be significantly higher than average population growth of 1.8%. Otherwise, agriculture will always have to play catch up just to meet the food needs of a growing population. And this can result in periodic food shortages.
Media has reported on his requisites to agriculture development:
• Drafting a plan that include inputs from the private sector and other stakeholders; a systematic and long-term strategy in developing and promoting exports of raw and processed agricultural products to achieve economies of scale in on-farm production that will generate sustained quantity and quality of export products
• Using modern technology for all crops, including those with export potential in processed or value-added form like coffee, cacao, cassava, tropical fruits, and rubber, and then industrializing the value chain of every agricultural commodity
• Digitizing or computerizing farming and to make credit more affordable and accessible to farmers; “agri-preneurship” will modernize agriculture; farming and fisheries should be treated as business undertakings
• Making farms more productive, and improving income “by value adding, processing, manufacturing, and developing markets for both raw and processed agricultural products” through the combined efforts of the departments of Agriculture, Trade and Industry, and other government offices
• Infrastructure development; higher budget and more investments; and, legislative support for proposed laws related to agricultural and rural development
Dar noted the need to diversify crop production in the Philippines as about 80% of the country’s farmlands are devoted to only to three crops: rice, corn, and coconut. This I agree with considering that we produce rice to feed people, corn to feed people and animals, and coconut also to feed people and animals. Meantime, both corn and coconut are also used by industries. But of these three crops, only coconut products are being exported now.
I also support Dar’s call for consolidation of small parcels of farmland through schemes that include “block farming, trust farming, contract farming, and corporative farming that will make farming more efficient.” But this, I think, is easier said than done. This is a crucial issue. Without farm consolidation to achieve economies of scale, which may require circumventing agrarian reform, I just don’t see agriculture truly developing.
Not to take anything away from Dar, but his requisites are nothing new. Many other Agriculture secretaries before him had espoused similar ideas in the past. Mechanizing, modernizing, value-adding, and computerizing as well as the need for more investments have all been bandied about in the last 20 years. But none have had significant success in this regard. Even efforts to diversify away from rice, corn, and coconut have made little headway.
What can make Dar different, however, is his seeming ability to bring stakeholders together to work towards a common goal. This particular skill will serve him well in the next three years if he is to bring agriculture out of the doldrums, especially if he intends to pursue greater private sector or corporate participation and investment in large-scale farming, irrigation, and food production.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.