“The incoming president has taken up a most challenging role, and it is definitely the right decision for the parlous times our food security confronts”
A friend intimated to me Thursday last week over lunch that president-elect FM Jr. was bent on taking up the agriculture portfolio, unable as he was to find the right fit for the position among many contenders with opposing views – those who insist on free trade, RTL, and continued importation of food versus those who prefer more subsidies to the farm sector.
True enough, the announcement came on Monday, in a press conference where he was flanked by his economic managers. The incoming president has taken up a most challenging role, and it is definitely the right decision for the parlous times our food security confronts.
The Manila Standard has been in the forefront of traditional media’s alarm bells about the food crisis and has had a series of jeremiads in articles warning about the inevitable.
Even during the early years of Mao Zedong’s PROC, when China was pariah to most of the world, every effort was made to ensure the availability and affordability of basic food items, given the country’s huge population.
And his rival Chiang Kai-shek instituted a land reform program to ensure that his support base brought from the mainland had wherewithal to produce food, and prioritized agricultural research to optimize food production in a land with more mountains than plains.
In an earlier article last May, we wrote about this food insecurity staring at our face, and it has come about. Rice has inched up. Pork is back to past 400 pesos per kilo. Chickens have breached the 200 peso level.
Vegetables, and not only because of the rains, have doubled, even tripled their prices. So has fish, unlikely in a country surrounded and interspersed with water.
As we wrote then, after the electoral tsunami comes a perfect storm, and it is already in the Philippine area of responsibility, gathering ferocity as it approaches land.
And because we are a food and oil importing country, the dollar exchange rate at 54 plus, and likely to go up further, compounds the problem.
Which is why the president-elect’s taking up the mantle at DA is most welcome.
And he chose the right pronouncements about the long-festering problems that hound the DA: the need to reorganize a humongous and top-heavy bureaucracy often with redundant and conflicting mandates and to revive oft-neglected agencies so vital to ensuring food security.
“We’re going back to basics…and rebuild the value chain of agriculture,” he stated.
That is a recognition that it is not only a question of subsidizing production using the billions earned by government from tariffs extracted from importation, but strengthening the value chain that brings produce from farm to table.
High logistics costs, post-harvest facilities, the cold chain, all of these need to be addressed, and “moving very quickly…we have to be agile,” he pronounced.
Previous DA secretaries have kept asking Congress for bigger budgets, and failed to get what they wanted, whether it was Alcala in PNoy’s term, or Pinol and Dar in PRRD’s term.
But it is not just a matter of throwing more and more money into the problem. It is, as the president-elect correctly put it, “retooling” the bureaucracy and the policies and programs to make sure scarce government resources are spent where they can optimize food production and thereby tame food prices.
A little known agency whose world-class food quality testing was funded through a Japanese yen facility, the Food Development Center in the Taguig compound of the Food Terminal, has been grossly underutilized, passed over for the Bureau of Plant Industry in the vital role of phyto-sanitary requirements for food imports in the hastily-passed Rice Tarrification Law, which likewise gave the BPI the authority to issue import permits, removed from the castrated National Food Authority.
This is not to demean the many highly qualified career bureaucrats of the BPI, which has been headed in the past six years by a barangay chairman from Davao City. But FDC has both the trained personnel and the equipment to perform the role.
Food Terminal Inc., which the president-elect’s father founded 53 years ago, placed under the wings of the NFA, also an FM creation, to ensure staple grains availability, has been undermined since 1986.
Its cold storage facility, once the biggest in Southeast Asia, was allowed to deteriorate with little maintenance until it became obsolete, and torn down during the time of GMA, its building cannibalized, with the view on end to privatize the Taguig real estate.
This privatization of the FTI premises President PNoy had to finalize in his time, but that is a long story for another article.
In the time of PRRD, this writer, being CEO of MECO, donated 10 state-of-the-art cold storage containers to FTI, to be the showcase of what could be done if FTI was revived, and now we are getting signals from the incoming President-DA Secretary about a value chain that, in fairness, Sec. Dar had also prioritized until overcome by the COVID pandemic and its impact on the scarce resources of government.
There is a Philmech which is supposed to hasten the mechanization of our farms, but take a look at the long line of supposedly “modern” equipment at the UP Los Banos, gathering dust because of a quaint requirement that mechanization must be registered with Philmech.
Parang mayroong LTO for agricultural equipment. Whatever for?
Most of the proceeds from the tariffs charged on rice imports will go to mechanization, but are we purchasing the right equipment?
Consider the fact that we have subdivided our farms into un-economical parcels through agrarian reform, and then left the small landholders (who have yet to get their land titles) to the mercies of a volatile market where their diseconomies of scale cannot compete with Vietnam, Thailand, and India.
We could write on and on, including the necessary disengagement of fisheries from the DA into another department in charge of marine and aquatic resources, but this would strain the limits of column-writing.
But here is an immediate concern: the top-heavy DA bureaucracy.
There are 11 Undersecretaries in DA, with nine Asecs, and of course a regional director in every region, apart from a multitude of line and staff directors. Why so many, with overlapping functions creating a dysfunctional hierarchy?
If memory serves me right, DA used to have only four undersecretaries, for planning and policy, for operations, for administration, and finance.
Has DA improved its service-effectiveness and its cost-efficiency with 11 USecs (complete with brought-in staff) and nine Asecs, supervising almost three dozen agencies and bureaus, from the time when FM Sr’s Tanco, Tanchanco, and Escudero were calling the shots?
The president-elect knows. And hopefully, he will, as he said, “move quickly and decisively.”
Meanwhile, let me reiterate what I wrote about in a previous article: Congress, under both incoming Speaker Martin and incoming Senate President Migs must be ready to give the incoming president emergency powers to deal with the “perfect storm.”
Remove the obstacles, re-tool the RTL if need be, and, as he said in the case of energy, “talk about ensuring oil supplies” from friendly countries, likewise be empowered to ensure food security.
When I was in Thailand two weeks back, their commerce ministry was already initiating talks with their Vietnamese counterparts about some form of “price standardization” of the staple grain which, along with India, their three countries virtually control.
These are extremely difficult times for our food security, which is, absent a war, the most important element of national security.