Agriculture deserves a competent leader

July 1, 2023

by Rosario Guzman

The country’s agriculture and food situation has been dire in the last couple of decades. This is more of the deleterious impact of neoliberalism than of bad weather that previous administrations had consistently blamed. So when the Marcos Jr administration, which did not campaign on any relevant issue during the elections except for the aspirational Php20-per-kilo rice, announces that it is prioritizing efforts to ensure food security, it comes as a complete surprise.

More interestingly new is that Marcos Jr himself, despite his absolute lack of work culture, sits as the agriculture secretary. The agriculture budget for 2023 gets a whopping increase of 25% from an average annual growth of only 1.2% in 2020-2022. This is a Php28.3 billion increase in absolute amount. The agriculture department, on the other hand, gets an increase of Php27.8 billion, 39.2% higher than 2022. Although this may be less phenomenal than the 59.4% increase in 2020 under Duterte, the Php99 billion department budget is still 103% higher than the amount pre-pandemic.

There is an uptick in the share of agriculture in the national budget from an average annual share of 2.5% in 2019-2022 to 2.8% in 2023. Although it is not the same in the case of the combined budget of agriculture and agrarian reform where the average annual share of 3.5% in 2019-2022 is still slightly bigger than the 3.3% share for the budget for 2023, the 2023 share is still an improvement from 2022.

So is the Marcos Jr administration putting money where its mouth is? Not quite.

First of all, what is the plan? The sector “cries for urgent attention after years of neglect and misdirection”, says Bongbong Marcos, but mentions nothing concrete that we have not heard before. The department aims to increase the yield of the country’s main staple and other major crops in the short term, and “reconstruct” agricultural value chains in the long term. Before the new administration could detail the steps, its pronouncements have already been drowned out by soaring food prices and its ineffectual response.

Second, we take a closer look at where the money goes. The Office of the Secretary (OSEC) captures the largest chunk as well as the largest increase, distantly followed by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC), and Philippine Carabao Center. The Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) has the highest growth.

These priorities have not changed much from the Duterte administration, except for an unusually large allocation of Php8.7 billion for the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech) in 2020, which is now reduced to Php369.3 million.

Under the OSEC, from 2019, tremendous increases are in the technical and support services program, particularly production support for the National Rice Program (NRP), National Corn Program (NCP) and organic agriculture, and market services. The agricultural machinery, equipment and facilities subprogram follows, also with the heavy bias for the NRP, NCP, and livestock. The regulatory support program also makes a huge jump, particularly in quarantine services.

Closer scrutiny reveals that there is a 68% increase in locally-funded and foreign-assisted projects, which may be attributed to a 93% increase in the budget for the repair and construction of farm-to-market roads. These projects also eat up one-third of the OSEC’s money. In short, BBM’s focus on agriculture has been anchored on the infrastructure development paradigm, that if only private contractors and foreign lenders provide the infrastructure, economic sectors such as agriculture as well as the national economy would develop. Of the 39 infrastructure flagship projects identified under the administration’s Build Better More (BBM), 36 will be facilitated through the national budget.

Another closer scrutiny also confirms that the budget for mechanization has only been reclassified under locally-funded and foreign-assisted projects. The World Bank’s Philippine Rural Development Project for instance is on so-called mechanization as well as infrastructure development, which however packaged as cooperative empowerment is about renting out machines and collecting fees for the use of infrastructure including irrigation. In the final analysis, more money has only gone to supporting the sale and rent of inputs and machines, which are otherwise imported.

Bongbong Marcos has also hyped the resurrected marketing outlet, Kadiwa, but without a substantial budget increase from the previous years (yes, it was the Duterte administration that revived the bankrupt idea). Thus for the most part, Kadiwa has all been media blitz, even if it has been markedly wanting in terms of the few number of outlets and small volumes of traded produce, which are not so cheap anyway.

Emergency assistance, crop and catch insurance, price support, market information, among others, are crucial to farmers and fisherfolk. But for some reason, the Marcos Jr administration wants to start with digitalization and accomplish its registry system for basic sectors in agriculture (RSBSA). To date, 5.4 million (out of an estimated 11 million) farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk have already registered, according to the DA, but has anyone received substantial economic relief under the Marcos Jr administration? Only Php3,000 fuel subsidies have been given to 312,000 farmers and fishers at the height of oil price hikes.

Where is the move to strengthen local production? Must it always be an indirect action of providing infrastructure on user-pays principle, selling expensive imported inputs, weak marketing intervention, or predicting the weather? Or maybe direct support is too much to ask from the president-secretary?

Whatever happens to agriculture, whether it be price spikes, lower buffer stock or crop failures, the Marcos Jr administration has only responded with the lazy policy of importation. The agricultural trade deficit of US$11.8 billion by the end of 2022 is the largest in recorded history, while the US$2.8 billion for the first quarter of 2023 is a constant increase since 2020. The Marcos Jr administration is projected to be importing 3.8 million metric tons of rice in 2024. If this pushes through, it is going to be the biggest importation of the staple in the country’s history of trade liberalization.

The Marcos Jr administration has not been looking at the stark reality of long-term agricultural decline. In the past six years, palay and corn production had an average annual growth of -0.15% and 0.35%, respectively. This chronic crisis deserves a full-time, competent and diligent leader. It’s time for Bongbong Marcos to relinquish the leadership and not wait for so-called volunteers. His calling for volunteers only reflects weakness in decision-making.