Page last updated at 01:23 UTC, Thursday, 28 May 2020 PH
One of the best decisions of President Duterte is to appoint Dr. William Dar as the Secretary of Agriculture. Agriculture being the weakest link in the Philippine economy, we need a person like Secretary Dar who is both one of the most knowledgeable and experienced agricultural scientists in Asia and an effective administrator or leader. I have just read his book entitled “Feeding the Forgotten Poor,” and am convinced that with his vast knowledge of agricultural development policies and practices in many countries in Asia and Africa and his track record of leading projects to help especially the poor farmers, we have a great chance of accelerating the growth of the Philippine agricultural sector to 3 % annually during his watch for the remaining years of the Duterte Administration and ensuring that such a growth will be inclusive, that is, it will benefit first and foremost the small farmers.
From the day he was appointed Secretary of Agriculture less than a year ago, his leadership qualities have been literally tested by fire. In less than a semester, he had to face three severe crises affecting Philippine agriculture. The first was the rice tariffication move which significantly decreased the incomes of rice farmers, while benefitting the vast majority of Filipinos who now are paying lower prices for the staple food that they consume. Then there was the African swine disease that affected a good number of hog-raising provinces in Luzon and the Visayas. Secretary Dar was quick to mobilize LGU heads to attend to the problem. To complicate matters for agriculture even more, there was the explosion of Taal Volcano that affected vast tracts of agricultural lands in Batangas, Cavite and Laguna. He was not daunted by these challenges and working 24-7, he applied concrete solutions with decisiveness to all these problems, knowing how to work closely with other national government agencies, local government units and private enterprises in applying the appropriate solutions. Our University of Asia and the Pacific has contributed in a small way to helping the Secretary implement immediate solutions to the problems he encountered.
It is his international experiences, especially as Director General for more than a decade of the international Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderabad, India, that have given him the wisdom to face the wrath of rice farmers and support the rice tariffication move. As I have always heard from agribusiness specialists like our Dr. Rolando Dy, who heads the Centre for Food and Agribusiness at the University of Asia and the Pacific, it had been unwise for our policy makers to target rice self-sufficiency for several decades. We should have followed the example of Malaysia, among others, which early on realised that they could never compete with Thailand and Vietnam in rice productivity because of the almost unlimited waters coming from the Mekong river traversing these two countries. Water is the most essential input in attaining high productivity in rice production. Malaysian government officials decided more than three decades ago that they would import a significant percentage of their rice consumption from Thailand and Vietnam and devote most of their land areas to palm oil and rubber. They made so much money from these high-value crops that their farmers got rich and their consumers benefited from lower prices of imported rice. I am sure that with his experiences in ICRISAT, Secretary Dar can help rice farmers to diversify into higher-value crops like vegetables, fruits and livestock.
At ICRISAT, Secretary Dar insisted in giving a human face to agricultural research. “Science with a Human Face” became the overarching motto of the institution. Under his leadership, ICRISAT developed more productive and sustainable drylands farming systems through research-for-development to improve the efficiency and sustainability of use of natural resources such as water, nutrients and genetic resources (crop varieties). ICRISAT focused on the main staple crops of the poor: two cereals, millet and sorghum and three legumes, groundnut (peanut), chickpea and pigeon pea. In addition to focusing on the crops that feed the poor, diversification from the usual crops of sugarcane, rice, wheat and corn is healthy for a more sustainable and inclusive environment for agricultural development. As Secretary Dar wrote: “The diversity of crops allows us to take full advantage of the wider range of production environments available today. Environmental differences include temperature, rainfall, soil type, soil microbes, diseases and pests, and other factors. By utilizing the adaptive traits that we find in crop collections, farmers will be able to plant the right crops where they grow best, rather than having to massively fertilise and irrigate different environments in an attempt to homogenise them to fit the needs of just a few crops—a costly and environmentally-damaging approach that is all too prevalent in today’s world. By having access to a wider range of environments, farmers are able to produce a larger total quantity of food, yet in more sustainable ways.”
Another important reason to help rice and corn farmers to diversify into other crops is that people need to eat diverse foods for good heath. Secretary Dar wrote: “A recent conference entitled ‘Agriculture, Nutrition and Health’ organised by our sister centre the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) cautioned that favouring fewer crops by subsidizing their prices for the poor could lead to dietary imbalances. We might be better off issuing vouchers to allow the poor to buy diverse foods, rather than handouts of just 2 to 3 starchy crops.” These comments should inspire people investing in agriculture to consider many more high-value crops that can be planted in former rice or sugar fields. We should look at the success story of Vietnam in becoming a major exporter of coffee. Then there are other fruit trees that require more investments: cacao, mangoes, avocados, lanzones, calamansi, passion fruit, local varieties of bananas like saba, etc. These fruit trees can be grown for both local consumption and exports. Avocado, for example, is in great demand in China. Under the leadership of Secretary Dar, this diversification into other crops can be better promoted. To be continued.