Page last updated at 01:20 UTC, Thursday, 28 May 2020 PH
Anyone with a cellphone must have been bombarded with an abundance of news, advisories and so-called updates on the Corona Virus. Some played down the seriousness of the epidemic. Others were very alarmist. A few others were the skeptics. It was not easy to separate the chaff from the grain because a good number of those who appeared in the various communiques claimed to be experts. The same thing can happen in the field of agriculture if we cannot rely on on those leading the effort to cure the “sick sector of the Philippine economy” help us differentiate between the “rope and the snake”, to use an Indian proverb. Once again, we should be thankful that we can count on the the current Sectary of Agriculture to help us expose the fake or erroneous information that refers to the agricultural sector.
It was from William Dar, the current Secretary of Agriculture , that I learned to distinguish the “rope and the snake”. In his book “Feeding the Forgotten Poor,” Secretary Dar shared with his readers the Indian concept of “Maya” which derives from ancient Sanskrit philosophy, the thought tradition that is the foundation of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and other South Asian religions. According to Maya, what we initially see is only an illusion of what a thing truly is. Only by probing more deeply can we discover the real truth of the thing. The very colourful example given is the illusion of a rope being mistaken for a dangerous snake in the darkness. When light enters the room, the illusion called Maya vanishes when light enters the room and the true nature of the rope is perceived.
There are two important issues in agricultural development to which we can apply this rope vs. snake dilemma. The first is the long-time impression which even President Duterte still seems to harbor that the best help we can give to farmers is to continue fragmenting lands into small pieces, following the now defunct Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Agrarian reform advocates still see a snake in large tracts of land. The truth is that what they see is a rope because what we need today when the greatest need in agriculture is to increase farm productivity is to consolidate small farms into bigger units, whether in sugar, coconut and a host of high-value crops, to attain economies of scale. Secretary Dar fortunately realises the need for bigger farm units so that we can modernise our farming in many of the important sectors where we can be competitive with the rest of Southeast Asia, as we have accomplished in the very successful export products of banana and pineapple. There are successful models of consolidating the small farms owned by the beneficiaries of agrarian reform into bigger units such as the Malaysian nucleus estate model, cooperative farming as practised in Taiwan and Thailand or what our own Land Bank executives refer to as “corporatives”, a synergy between cooperatives of farmers and a large agribusiness corporation. Secretary Dar is very familiar with all of these Asian models and will not hesitate to advise President Duterte to redefine the purpose of agrarian reform along these lines.
The second snake that Secretary Dar will expose as a rope is the unfounded fear about genetically modified (GM) crops. In his book “Feeding the Forgotten Poor,” he categorically states that “when we look at the overwhelming body of experience so far, GM crops have been rope, not snake. Since they began to take off in 1996, GM crops have been grown on more than one billion hectares with no proven ill effects on human health or natural ecosystems. Meanwhile they have delivered major benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment.” According to Secretary Dar, the main GM crops grown so far have been soybean, corn, cotton and rapeseed. About half of the total sown area is on small-scale farms in developing countries, and that rate is growing more than in developed countries. The most successful GM crop traits have been insect resistance due to insertion of Bt genes, and resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.
I am glad that we have such a knowledgeable Secretary of Agriculture at this point of time when our greatest challenge is to improve the productivity of our agricultural sector. Let us listen to his advice to make sure that our emotions and fears as well as short-term motives do not interfere with our search for the truth. He said that we must struggle to control those emotions and consider each proposed use of GM crops scientifically, weighing the risks and rewards carefully before deciding whether we are being offered a rope or a snake. We must be humble and adjust our approach as we learn. We must use, not lose the lessons of diversity. And we must communicate more effectively with the public so that fear does not take root due to lack of information. During the short time that he has been Secretary of Agriculture, William Dar has shown admirable skill and effectiveness in communicating his policy decisions and actions to the various stakeholders of Philippine agriculture, especially the poorest of the poor among the farmers. Let us help him in this important task of distinguishing between the rope and the snake. For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.