Bernardo M. Villegas
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Reasons for Optimism in Agriculture (Part 1)

          Over the last three years, despite my natural optimistic mood, I could not see the light at the end of the dark tunnel in agriculture.  Agricultural productivity was going from bad to worse.  There were unclear directions and no one seemed to be in charge.  Thanks to a dialogue that a group of concerned local officials and business people had with the new Secretary of Agriculture on a rainy Sunday afternoon last August 25, I foresee a brighter future for this most important sector of the Philippine economy in the last three years of the Duterte Administration.  Secretary William Dar fits to a T  his role as the champion of agricultural development and, therefore, of combatting mass poverty which would never be eradicated in this country unless we achieve rural and agricultural progress.  He fully understands agriculture because of his very comprehensive academic training and wide experience in this field, not only in the Philippines but all over Asia.  He also has the quality of a good leader who listens to all stakeholders before taking a decision.

         He is taking the bull by the horns in the two sectors that are under serious threat in the immediate future:  the hog industry that is facing a crisis in several provinces of Southern Luzon because of the African hog disease and the rice industry because of the impending large fall in prices to the farmer come harvest time in September.  He has his sights on the medium-term, as every good leader, but knows that there is no medium term if the short-term problems facing rice and the hog industry will not be successfully addressed.  It was impressive the way he literally worked twenty four seven, calling governors of provinces in the middle of night about nipping in the bud  false news circulating about cases of the swine disease.  He was also quick to move in those confirmed cases of the outbreak of the disease, requiring immediate culling of pigs in the areas affected without delay.  As regards the palay price problem, he has appealed to the governors of the top rice producing provinces to help in subsidizing the farm gate prices with LGU funds and for those provinces, like Batangas, which are not major rice producers, to help by putting up warehouses or food terminals and then partner with private traders to purchase the palay this coming harvest time in September at prices competitive with imports and store them as buffer stocks to be sold during the lean months when market prices are higher.  Batangas is especially positioned to help because of its planned food terminal to be located in one of the largest seaports of Luzon, the gateway to Visayas and Mindanao.

         Secretary Dar takes the very enlightened view that the Philippines does not have to aim at self-sufficiency in rice because it does not have the competitive advantage of producing rice at the very low costs of countries like Vietnam and Thailand that have practically unlimited sources of water, a very necessary ingredient for the production of palay.  Like what Malaysian officials decided decades ago, we should have fixed a certain level of self-sufficiency, say 80 percent or so, and decided to import the rest from our more productive neighbors.  We could then have helped rice farmers to use part of their land for high-value crops like fruits, vegetables, livestock and tree crops.   It is not too late to follow this more enlightened policy (as we have done through the tariffication of rice imports), especially because of the significant increase in the demand for high-value crops, not only in the Philippines, but all over the Asian region.  It is well known that countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam are exporting billions of dollars of fruits, vegetables and other high-value food products to other Asian countries, especially China. The Philippines can significantly add to its success in the export of bananas and pineapples by diversifying its agricultural exports to such products as coffee, cacao, coconut water, coconut milk, mangoes, durian, avocado and a host of other high-value products.  As most countries in the Asian region transition from low-income to high-middle income status, there will be an exponential increase in the demand for these high-value food products.  (To be continued)