The greatest challenge that the Dept. of Agriculture faces now is how to spur positive growth in the farming and fisheries sectors which towards the end of the term of the previous administration plummeted from a mediocre 1.6% growth to a negative 4.4% in the first quarter of 2016.
As the administration of President Rody Duterte marks its first 50 days, the media have been asking me to gauge the performance of the Dept. of Agriculture.
I had to honestly tell them that there is not much to talk about yet because unlike the anti-crminality campaign where success could be based on the number of criminals arrested or neutralised, it would take over 100 days before rice or corn could be harvested.
I believe, however, that towards the last quarter of this year, the Agriculture and Fisheries sector would be able to rebound and register positive growth.
Why am I projecting positive growth?
Over the last three months and even before I could officially assume as the new Secretary of Agriculture, I made a journey all over the country called “Biyaheng Bukid” which allowed me to actually assess the situation of the farmers and fisherfolk in the countryside.
The long and rigorous trips gave me a first-hand knowledge of what is needed to be done to reverse the downtrend in the performance of the agriculture and fisheries sector.
Why did the agriculture and fisheries sectors register negative performance?
First, El Niño indeed clobbered the agriculture and fisheries sectors and it could be accurately identified as the culprit behind the -4.4% performance of the sectors.
El Niño was actually the last nail on the coffin of the agriculture and fisheries sectors which obviously suffered from the neglect and misdirection of the previous leaders.
The Dept. of Agriculture in the past made very ill-advised investments and implemented poorly-planned projects.
When I assumed office, I discovered that over P2-B worth of farm implements, including very expensive rice and corn harvesters, were kept in the DA regional compounds all over the country. These were not distributed simply because many of the recipients did not have the capacity to put up the 15% cash equity needed so that the equipment could be released to them.
Many of the equipment were left to the elements for years, thus P2-B of government money which could have been used to spur the growth of the agriculture sector were virtually left sleeping for years. Add to that the modern rice processing centers which are not operational until today simply because the farmer beneficiaries do not have the money to connect the facility to a power line.
The Dept. of Agriculture invested heavily in costly infrastructures like the construction of the P800-M Benguet Agri-Pinoy Trading Center and 20 other similar trading centres all over the country costing the government billions of pesos.
These projects, however, did not have not immediate impact on the growth of the agriculture sector, thus money which could have been used to increase food production was placed in non-performing facilities. In fact, the BAPTC and many more similar trading centres are not fully operational and beneficial to the farmers until today.
Hundreds of millions of pesos were wasted in the purchase of livestock from other countries – goats, sheep, cattle both for meat and dairy – which were grossly overpriced.
A few weeks after my assumption as Secretary of Agriculture, I discovered approved purchases of sheep and goats which were priced way beyond the actual market price. Worse, they were passed off as materials for genetic improvement when in truth, many of the goats were of very poor quality and mostly crossbreds.
The Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), supposedly the farming knowledge improvement arm of the DA, was spending its money on non-essential projects like the making of candies instead of focusing on the technology transfer and training of farmers in modern rice and corn farming, vegetable production and fisheries.
With a budget of about P1.6-B, the ATI was a dismal failure and hardly contributed to the upgrading of the skills of the farmers and the fisherfolk, an important factor in attaining greater productivity.
The Dept. of Agriculture has virtually abandoned the high-value crops sector, especially the Cavendish Banana Industry which was bedevilled by a pernicious disease called the Fusarium or Panama Disease which destroyed thousands of hectares of productive areas.
It is only today that a continuous dialogue between the DA and the banana sector is being conducted and the first result is the programmed establishment of a regional laboratory in Davao City for plant and animal diseases, soil and water analysis.
The rubber sector suffered badly as the world prices plummeted but the DA hardly moved a finger to assist the rubber farmers. This problem actually caused an increase in poverty incidence in provinces where rubber is the major crop. Oil Palm prices also fell as a result of what is suspected to be price manipulation by the big Oil Millers in the country.
Rice and corn farmers were left on their own in their battle against unscrupulous traders who manipulate the prices of these commodities during the peak harvest season.
The fisheries sector hardly received any support from the Dept. of Agriculture. In fact, even fishpond operators complained that they could not even get a production loan from government banks. Those who survived were the big fishpond and fish cages operators who had the money to finance their business.
I could list down many more shortcomings by government which ultimately led to the spiralling downfall of the agriculture and fisheries sector if only to emphasise what needs to be done to reverse the downtrend.
I am learning from their mistakes and hopefully, with proper planning and consultation, we will be able to reverse the situation.
There are now major policy redirections in the Dept. of Agriculture, foremost of which is to bring back the department to its basic and original function – produce food for the Filipino people and support high-value commodities production.
The DA’s involvement in food production will now be coupled with efforts to address poverty in the farming and fisheries sector.
Fishing boats and fishing gears are now being distributed to poor fisherfolk families all over the country and the Duterte administration is aiming to give out 1 million fishing boats to 2 million fisherfolk families before the end of the President’s term in 2022. That would effectively mean 2 million families lifted out of poverty and millions of kilos of fish delivered to the market.
Free irrigation for rice farmers will start by 2017 and if the budget department would allow it, good quality rice seeds and fertilisers will be given to them for the next two cropping seasons starting the Wet Season of 2017 to finally achieve the long-dreamed rice sufficiency and food security in the country.
There will be serious efforts on the part of the Dept. of Agriculture to protect rice and corn farmers from unscrupulous traders and this will be done by initiating the direct market strategy and the establishment of grains silos for storage in key production areas of the country.
Following a recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study which said that Filipinos consume more meat now, up from15 kilos to 35 kilos per capita per year, the DA will now focus on the establishment of multiplier farms for livestock so that farming families would have access to materials for breeding and fattening. Three years from now, there would be a marked increase in meat production in the country.
Hog, poultry and duck production will also be focus areas of the Dept. of Agriculture because of their income-earning potentials and contributions to food production.
The high-value crops sector which directly benefit farmers like rubber, oil palm, banana, abaca, coconut, marine products and the like will be given full support. In fact, as DA Secretary I have pledged to personally lead the promotions and marketing efforts for the country’s export products.
The effects of these efforts will not be felt in a month of two. In the case of livestock production, it would take at least three years before there could be a marked improvement in the supply.
However, I foresee a great improvement in the agriculture and fisheries sectors by the 4th quarter of this year.
Moving around the country, I saw vast rice fields already planted and the harvest of corn has started. In fact, the DA is projecting a bumper corn harvest because of the seven-month El Niño which allowed the soil to take a “rest.”
The fishing boats distribution program could contribute greatly to the availability of fish in the market by December while the poultry and hog sectors are also expecting positive growth.
What needs to be done to sustain this is to really focus on the President’s commitment: Available and Affordable Food for the Filipino People.
#Changeishere! #PresRodyCares! #DuterteDelivers! #BiyahengBukidRocks!
(Photos of rice fields, corn fields, fishponds and livestock downloaded from Google.)