By: John Carlo Tria
LET’S face it. At barely 1 percent, our agriculture performance last year looked like we were in the past administration. Senator Kiko Pangilinan seems to have forgotten that when he was PNOYs Agriculture czar, our performance was actually worse than it is today.
Back then, excuses were often made, citing the weather. The truth, however, is that the old agriculture regime allowed our farmers to remain less productive and at the mercy of many factors (like cartels that control milling, credit, and distribution, that often make a killing at their expense) that hampered their growth, and failed to produce the new crop of farmers that would take over from them. Hence, statistics show our farmers getting older, and their children.
Poor agriculture growth does not bode well for our economic growth since population and economic growth must be paired with a robust growth in agriculture since we need to grow agriculture at about 4 percent if we want supply to keep pace with the rise in consumption. Otherwise, when demand outstrips supply, inflation goes up as it did in 2018.
Yet subsidies, press conferences and selfies will not save the farmers. It is investments and technology that will; the stuff that can allow better yields even with limited land and cut the wastage during harvests. Its time agriculture leveled up.
With this, we have a new Agriculture Secretary in the person of William Dar. He is a known agriculture expert, with advanced technical degrees and experience in the field of crop management. He once served as agriculture secretary for a limited time during the Estrada administration, the last technical expert to sit in that vital department.
Truth be told, it was under his watch then that our agriculture grew at above 5 percent, a far cry from our current performance, and when our self-rated hunger was about as low as it is today.
To his credit, he has hit the ground running on efforts to help rice farmers. He and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez recently directed financial assistance to help rice farmers adjust to lower paddy prices following the passage of Republic Act (RA) No. 11203 or the Rice Tariffication Law which has caused rice prices to drop.
This is essentially unconditional cash assistance for farmers, under the Survival and Recovery (SURE) program of the Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC), which both secretaries are members of.
This assistance is apart from the Rice Competitive Enhancement Fund (RCEF), the annual P10-billion fund established under the Rice Tarrification Law to be sourced from tariffs on rice imports. So far, about 6 Billion has been collected this year, on top of the 5 billion allocated last year.
This cash assistance has been necessary since recent Commission on Audit (COA) findings show that the National Food Authority, the agency mandated to implement the RCEF, did not allocate the money to the farmers.
News reports cite that the National Food Administration (NFA) instead diverted the 7 billion pesos to pay their loans to Land Bank. (https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/08/10/1942155/coa-flags-nfa-over-p7-b-rice-fund-diversion)
With these vital reforms in place, Dar will have his hands full to turn our agriculture around. His skills, and experience, and the provisions of new laws give him the credibility and resources to take leadership and actually achieve new heights for this long-neglected sector.