By Beatrice M. Laforga, Reporter

THE GOVERNMENT should allow foreign investors to develop the country’s agriculture sector to ensure food security, according to various groups and experts.

Foreign companies should be able to bring in investments and technology to develop land in the long term, without owning it, George T. Barcelon, who heads the Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. (Philexport), said on Sunday.

“What we lack here in the agriculture sector is investment and technology, but for this to come in, we have to lay the groundwork,” he said by telephone, reacting to the proposal by several local groups.

“Our law has to be fair. We protect the sovereign rights of our lands but they can come in over the long term to invest in facilities and know-how,” he added,

Seven industry groups issued a statement on Saturday calling for the opening up of the sector to foreign trade and investments to lower food prices, ensure food security and create more jobs in the countryside.

They said opening up the sector would allow imports to temper rising food prices because of tight local supply. A more predictable flow of imported goods could also boost investments in other related industries, they added.

“The competition local producers face from imported products has the potential of introducing innovations in local agriculture, needed for stronger and competitive growth,” the groups said.

They were the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc., Cold Chain Association of the Philippines, Inc., Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc., Fisheries and Aquaculture Board, Foundation for Economic Freedom, Meat Importers and Traders Association and Philippine Association of Flour Millers, Inc.

“Foreign investments in the sector are necessary to intensify and diversify agricultural production and introduce technologies which would enhance the comparative advantage of the sector’s products,” they said.

“We urge authorities to take an inventory of all laws and regulations which discourage entry of foreign investments in the sector, and take away such unnecessary measures,” they added.

Republic Act 7042 or the Foreign Investments Act of 1991 limits foreign participation in certain sectors. It bars foreigners from owning land, mass media and practicing their professions.

The law also limits to 40% foreign participation in the development and use of natural resources and processing of rice and corn.

Mr. Barcelon said easing foreign investment restrictions could also help attract domestic investments. The government should likewise increase its budget for the agriculture sector.

Raul Q. Montemayor, the national manager of the Federation of Free Farmers, begs to disagree.

“They are more interested in giving incentives to foreign investors than to our own farmers,” he said in a Viber message.

“Foreign investors can just leave us when things go bad. Our own farmers will stay here no matter what happens because they have nowhere else to go.”

President Rodrigo R. Duterte has certified as urgent a bill that seeks to amend the Foreign Investments Act. The measure is part of his administration’s priority list to be passed before his term ends next year.

Senate Bill 1156 is pending second reading approval, while its counterpart House Bill 300 was passed in 2019.