Bernardo M. Villegas
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A Dialogue with the Presidentiables (Part 2)

             It is heartening that practically all the Presidentiables have made abundant references to what they will do to address the challenge of improving the productivity of the agricultural sector.  They are all right in emphasizing the importance of endowing the small farmers with all the support they need to improve their productivity and, thereby, increase their incomes both from their farming and non-farming activities.  Farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, fertilizers, post-harvest facilities, agricultural extension services, etc. have been favorite topics.   All of them are keenly aware of the fact that agriculture is the Achilles heel of the Philippine economy.  But there are many ways of skinning a cat.

            One policy area in which there is no consensus, however, has to do with how to attain food security.  There are still some of them who equate food security with food self-sufficiency, a policy that we followed for a long time by prohibiting or seriously limiting the importation of rice.  With the introduction of the Rice Tariffication Law, we abandoned this long-standing tradition of wanting to achieve 100% self-sufficiency in the most important food item to the Filipino consumers.  I would like to side with those among the Presidentiables who want to continue with this more realistic policy of admitting that the Philippines does not have the competitive advantage of producing rice in the Southeast Asian region.  We can never compete with Thailand and Vietnam in the low-cost production of rice in which the abundance of water is a competitive advantage.  The Philippines, being an Archipelago, can never aspire to have ocean-like rivers like the Mekong River of Thailand and Vietnam.  Malaysia, now close to being a First World country,  realized this fact decades ago when they did not equate food security with food self-sufficiency.  They recognized the reality that they could always import rice from their neighboring countries at less the cost needed to produce them at home.  So they decided to define food security as 60 or 70 % sufficiency and importing the rest.  They then decided to devote their abundant land resources to higher-value crops like palm oil and rubber that provided them with more than enough income to import the rice supply needed to supplement their limited local production.  In so doing, they also benefited their consumers of rice with lower prices made possible by the importation of the product.

            We should not heed the advice of the Presidentiables who are advocating the suspension of the rice tariffication law.  It is about time that we also consider the welfare of millions of poor Filipinos who are not rice farmers and whose meager incomes are further eroded by the high prices they have to pay for the most essential item in their food budget, which can constitute more than 50 percent of what they spend for food.  We can say the same thing for other essential food products even to the poor households, such as sugar, pork and other items that are habitually in short supply because of the lack of productivity of our agricultural sector.  If the low productivity is due to structural weaknesses of a specific sector, the solution is not to prevent importation but to use the revenues from the tariffs imposed to directly solve the structural defects.  As regards sugar, there has to be political will in the next Administration to reverse the imperfections of the agrarian reform program that led to the fragmentation of sugar farms into hopelessly unproductive units.  They must be reconsolidated through cooperatives, “corporatives” or the nucleus estate model applied by the Malaysians to their palm and rubber plantations.  Like putting an end to the Filipino Mentality that resulted from the amendment of the Public Service Act, the constant opposition to the importation of basic food stuffs to protect some Filipino farmers must be replaced by more effective solutions to the lack of productivity of these farmers. After all, there are other poor Filipinos to consider in striking a balance between local production and food imports.

            I would have wanted to get more solutions from the Presidentiables to the problems of the coconut farmers, the poorest among the poor in agriculture, together with sustenance fisherfolks and slush-and-burn farmers.  Reconsolidation of the also hopelessly small millions of hectares of coconut farms is of the greatest urgency.  There is no way a farmer with one or two hectares of coconuts can ever be redeemed from dehumanizing poverty.  I hope the next Administration will have enough political will to implement programs following the model of the banana and pineapple plantations in Mindanao in which large business can partner with thousands of small coconut farmers through a leasehold arrangement or through cooperatives so that the small farms can be consolidated into bigger units to reach the necessary economies of scale to allow the use of more advanced technology and farm management techniques.  Only such a reconsolidation will enable the industry to come out with much higher value products like coconut water, coconut sugar, coconut milk and numerous other food and non-food products that can be derived from the coconut tree.  I have often cited as potential models such corporations as Axelum in Misamis Oriental and Cardinal Agriculture in Brookes Point, Palawan.  Such model enterprises cannot only come out with more high-value products from coconut but also, through intercropping, enable these farms to diversify into other high-value agricultural products like vegetables and fruits.  Cacao and papaya, for example, can be planted in between the coconut trees.

            In the field in which educational and agricultural reforms intertwine, I would like to see more proposals to solve the acute problem of the ageing of farmers whose average age today is already close to 60 years.  The tragedy is that children of farmers are the last ones to think of going into farming.  We can address this looming manpower shortage in agriculture if we fund more technical institutes at the senior high school level or at the first two years of college that impart technical skills related to farming and to the whole value chain of agribusiness, from post-harvest to all the links of the agribusiness value chain such as cold storage, transport, logistics, small-scale food processing and retailing.   These courses can be marketed not only to the children of farmers but to all youth from whatever social class who can be attracted to farming and its allied occupations.  A recent study of the PIDS, the think tank of NEDA, found out that 40% of Filipino workers are “overeducated”, i.e. took up college courses whose academic content exceeded the demands of their present jobs.  I would rather use the word “miseducated”, i.e. took courses  that did not prepare them for the skills in actual demand in the market.   We can partly address this unfortunate mismatch of supply and demand by establishing agritech schools that will provide some of our Filipino youth with skills that are directly related to improving the productivity of the agribusiness sector.  I hope to see some of the Senators who will be elected in May 2022 to address this human resource challenge in the agricultural sector.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.