By Ramon L. Clarete
As BBM — Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. — starts his administration as President of the Republic and concurrent Secretary of Agriculture, it is useful to recall some of the good and bad things about his father’s administration of the country’s agriculture sector.
Marcos Sr. started his administration when the country was food insecure, even more so than now. Rice yields were only 1.5 tons a hectare, and demand for rice was rising. Rice shortage was unexceptional, such that it was commonplace to consume a meal comprising rice mixed with corn grits, or just corn grits or root crops. Not only are they less expensive than rice, corn grits then were more available than rice. The Philippines started to look for other sources of rice in other countries, but in those years the world rice market was significantly thinner and more unpredictable than now.
Food insecurity was a very important challenge of the government of Marcos Sr., such that BBM’s father had to take drastic measures to protect Filipinos from famine.
Marcos Sr. was fortunate then as the green revolution was “raging” during his first administration, 1966 to 1969. In the early 1960s, yields of wheat varieties in India increased significantly. This was attributed to the efforts of M.S. Swaminathan, an agronomist who became the Director-General of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) in Los Baños in the early 1980s. For his work in increasing wheat yields in India and his administration of IRRI, which led the research on generating improved rice varieties, Mr. Swaminathan received the first World Food Prize, which is the counterpart of the prestigious Nobel Awards, but for agriculture.
He worked with another famous scientist, Norman Borlaug, who was often called “the father of the Green Revolution,” and is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. Also recognized as the father of modern biotechnology, Mr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.
Table 1 shows the gains in crop yields due to biotechnology.
IRRI was founded by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Government of the Philippines in 1960.
When Marcos Sr. was looking for a viable solution to the problem of food insecurity, IRRI had already developed its high yielding varieties.
One of the best things that came out of the pre-martial law government of Marcos Sr. was the successful introduction of the high yielding varieties of rice in the Philippines. When they talk openly about their disappointment about the continuing high cost of food or the propensity of importing food, Filipinos pride themselves as being in a country which succeeded in increasing the yield of rice from 1.5 to at least three tons of rice. Our fellow ASEANs, including the more successful countries in agriculture, Thailand and Vietnam, had agronomists who were educated in IRRI in Los Baños, they often say.
Masagana 99 was the program Marcos Sr. implemented to introduce the high yielding varieties. It was administratively costly. Farmers were extended credit to grow high yielding varieties of rice, and not all of it was recovered. If we look at other countries like India, what they had was extension work and demonstration plots, which were less costly compared to credit extension. Marcos Sr. could have followed the same, and in the process avoided using credit to entice farmers to adopt the higher yield rice varieties and making them dependent on the government.
If we look at another successful introduction of a better technology here in the Philippines that has been implemented efficiently, I suggest we look at the adoption of genetically modified (GM) corn varieties. GM corn is the answer of agronomists to the corn stem borer and weeds, both of which reduce the yield of corn. The technology was permitted to be grown in the Philippines in 2003. The technology owners made use of extension work and demonstration plots, just like what was done in India for wheat in the 1960s. The government was not instrumental in promoting the technology other than setting up the regulatory system needed to ensure the safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology. No credit was extended to farmers, but somehow the adoption was rapidly successful.
Several technologies are waiting to be introduced to increase crop yields or make the plants more useful, most of which make use of modern biotechnology. Compared to the breeding used by agronomists during the Green Revolution in the 1960s, modern biotechnology is more precise in developing improved varieties. GM sugar, available in other countries, has the potential of boosting the productivity of our sugar farms.
We have successfully developed so-called “Pinoy GMOs” such as GM eggplant and golden rice. This rice introduces protection of the population from Vitamin A deficiency, which has killed millions of children in less-developed countries for at least the last three decades.
Recently the Department of Agriculture issued a circular on plant breeding innovations. The circular distinguishes between genetically modified improved varieties and crop engineered varieties not using a foreign gene. The circular prepares the Philippines to regulate and thus facilitates introduction of the most advanced varieties produced by modern biotechnology.
The National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) is considering a new circular on agricultural applications of genetically modified animals. The technology has the potential to improve the country’s livestock and fisheries industries.
One of challenges these days is the high cost of fertilizer, now three times more expensive than fertilizer prices before the Ukraine-Russian war. Yesterday, I attended a briefing about foliar fertilizer. This technology supplies both macro-nutrients (NPK) and trace elements such as boron, copper, iron, and zinc to the plant. Not only is this more affordable, i.e., its price did not increase as inorganic fertilizer did, it is more effective than the traditional granular inorganic fertilizer. It is applied on the leaves of the plants, and is released gradually to improve absorption of the fertilizer by the plant, resulting in higher yields compared to granular fertilizers. Over the long term, using foliar fertilizer prevents unfavorable nutrient interactions in the soil, which reduces the fertility of the soil.
Like most improved technologies, information on foliar fertilizer needs to be disseminated to our farmers who are now looking for more affordable yet still effective fertilizers. However, to avoid the high cost of Masagana 99, and emulate the good practice of introducing GM corn, BBM may consider the lessons we learned on agriculture under his father: make use of the advanced technology, rely on the private sector to disseminate the technology, avoid unnecessary spending which makes farmers dependent on government, and focus spending on generating so-called “public goods” such as dissemination of information, research, and infrastructure.
Ramon L. Clarete is a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.