Year after year — in fact, government after government — we get piecemeal revelations about our dismal food production. Agriculture and fisheries consistently contribute a measly part of our gross domestic product. And productivity in fisheries, except for the time when Malcolm Sarmiento was director of the Bureau of Fisheries, has been anemic, or in decline. Poverty incidence is highest among the people who produce our food; and incredibly, so is involuntary hunger.
Meanwhile, this government is extremely focused on getting rid of illegal drug distribution and addiction, which cannot seem to go away despite the killings. The other serious problem that is highlighted is graft and corruption among politicians, which stubbornly refuses to disappear. The profligate justice system makes it possible for plunder cases to be dismissed despite solid evidence.
Meanwhile, the average age of the Filipino farmer keeps going up, and is now estimated at 60 years old. The rural youth do not want to do grueling farm work. There is pro and con controversy on rice policy. The market has been opened up through rice tariffication, in order to bring down the price of price to help the consumers. The rice producers are howling, because they feel disadvantaged by the increased competition which they expect will kill them. The local production systems are just so obsolete that they are unable to compete. Government has announced budget allocations for irrigation systems to increase productivity. History should reveal that, after a while, when provided for free, these irrigation systems deteriorate from poor maintenance.
The business environment for rice farmers is just so unfriendly. Credit is largely unavailable, widespread corruption in the support system all the way from agriculture technicians to rural banks and wholesalers enables the middle men to make more money than the food producers who do the backbreaking work. Logistics costs in this archipelago make interisland distribution prohibitive.
Clearly, unless drastic, strategic moves are taken on government policy, the prognosis is downhill. Typically, government is still thinking piecemeal and short term. As usual, situation analysis sticks to operational issues and cannot seem to get strategic or long term enough. This is the kind of thinking that causes exasperating problems like “registered, no plates available” or “passports not available for the next two months,” or “shortage in water supply,” et cetera.
My own view is that big business has to aggressively come in to influence government policies to make investments in agribusiness more attractive. Unless they are willing to go into the business as a matter of social responsibility. Perhaps some of the big businesses can afford to undertake such risks. Especially when they are benefitting from relatively easy big bucks under the Build3 programs.
We need to rethink agriculture. We need to think agribusiness. Innovations can enable courageous entrepreneurs to go into agribusiness without owning land by going into partnership with small landowners and/or cooperatives. Entrepreneurs can provide access to credit, technology and markets, and food producers can provide land and labor. Even their progeny can be encouraged to remain in the farms if they can acquire skills to operate modern farm equipment.
Increases in productivity can reduce the land devoted to labor for food production; yet enable the food producers to earn more and do less backbreaking work. There are some successful models for this; including the multinationals operating here, such as Del Monte and United Fruit. Local Chinoy businessman Henry Tan Bon Liong has already ventured into Doña Maria branded high end rice marketing. He should be able to share his experienced insights as inputs into rice policy.
There is also a pressing need to link the agricultural schools, with their numerous specialized PhDs, with entrepreneurs who have knowledge of the markets for agricultural products such as coffee and cacao which have opened opportunities for processed brands, as well as high-end vegetables. Agribusiness includes provision of logistics facilities that prolong the life of farm and fisheries produce.
Let us not forget the critical need to protect our marine resources which are rapidly being depleted by illegal fishers including the mainland Chinese who have been destroying much of our corals and marine breeding sites in our West Philippine Sea. Illegal fishers tolerated by local governments also destroy productivity of our small fishers in waters considered to be reserved for them.
Clearly, the work of drastically reforming agriculture and fisheries policy and the environment for agribusiness is very serious business and will require bold and effective action, and the reordering of our policy and management priorities.
Agriculture has actually been devolved to local governments. Apparently the LGUs have not been prepared to manage this function; and not enough agriculture professionals are capable of, or care to undertake, the serious work of planning agriculture programs to specifically help the local farmers become more prosperous. They seem content to take orders from department headquarters in the non-agricultural National Capital Region. It seems not clear to the agriculture officials what their mission is: to produce more of certain commodities, or to help the Filipino farmer to prosper.
Many of the strategic agriculture and fisheries reforms such as investment incentives will have to be formulated through legislation. If the political survey findings are to be realized, can we expect entertainers and comedians, as well as demonstrated liars and accused plunderers, to undertake the serious work of crafting the legislation that will have to be formulated and passed into law? Food for serious thought (pun intended).
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.