"Let’s keep in mind that the agricultural sector ensures there is food on our tables. Thus, we have to make sure there’s also enough on theirs."
A perfect storm—this is how Secretary William Dar described the factors that contributed to the sky high prices of basic food commodities, particularly the price of swine and poultry products. While understandably the COVID-19 pandemic was an unforeseen intervening factor that gravely affected almost all supply chains, the possibility of natural disasters and animal-related diseases that affect our supply of fish, poultry, and livestock is not unknown.
Early this week, the President signed Executive Order No. 124 imposing a 60-day price freeze on pork products and chicken. According to the Department of Agriculture, the price freeze will be implemented starting February 8, 2021. Although this greatly benefits consumers, we have to strike a balance between the interests of producers and consumers. We have to nip the problem in the bud. Unfortunately, this price freeze is only a band-aid solution to this continuing problem.
I agree with Secretary Dar that the agricultural sector is more resilient compared to the industrial and service sectors. This is because the Philippines is foremost an agricultural country. Despite this, we still have not achieved food security.
Even before the pandemic, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the country has the most number of food insecure population, with 59 million Filipinos who suffer from moderate to severe lack of consistent access to food in 2019. Today, with a contracting economy and high unemployment rates due to the pandemic, there is a greater chance that the numbers would get worse.
Secretary Dar, during a House hearing on Tuesday, enumerated the priorities of ensuring food security. These are increased local production, improving local supply and mobilization, food diversification, and lastly, importation. Ideally, we should primarily rely on local producers for our food supply. However, our local producers cannot keep up with the rising costs of production and transportation of goods, especially with the ASF. Hence, there is rampant smuggling of pork products which not only risk ASF entry into the country, but also compete with the sales of local hog raisers. Moreover, importation, which is supposedly the last option, often gets an easier go signal than improving implementation of local agricultural programs and increasing support to local food producers.
I do not have anything against importation. If it is really needed to augment our food supply, then we should do it. However, we cannot simply resort to this solution without untangling the problems in the preceding priorities of the government in terms of food security.
We need to strengthen our programs and provide expanded support to our local producers. There should be a stricter penalty for those traders, businesses, and other profiteers who enable and continue to import smuggled food products, especially pork. Meanwhile, the DA already has a Bantay ASF sa Barangay program to prevent and arrest the spread of ASF in piggeries. However, it seems that there are loopholes in the implementation and insufficient testing for ASF which may lead to an inefficient containment of the disease. We need to look into the supplies of test kits to make sure that every local government unit with swine and cattle farms are not only capable but truly conducting regular ASF tests.
The government should also focus on helping local producers. Apart from subsidies, transportation of food products should be eased and improved. We have also heard of food diversification. However, supplementary and alternative food products receive inadequate attention, research, and support, while there is inelastic demand of major food products.
I laud the programs and intentions of the government in resolving these agricultural woes. However, the success of these agricultural programs, as with any other government program, lies in its implementation. Hence, I urge the Department of Agriculture to rev up and review its implementation and immediately address the deficiencies. I also call on the national government to revisit existing support given to local producers vis-a-vis the pressing needs in the current circumstances. Let’s keep in mind that the agricultural sector ensures there is food on our tables. Thus, we have to make sure there’s also enough on theirs.