“Build, Better, More” for agriculture? Not really

June 16, 2023

by Maricar Piedad

Early this year, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr released his list of Infrastructure Flagship Projects (IFPs) under the banner of “Build Better More”, carrying on from the previous administration’s “Build Build Build” program. The list contains 194 IFPs, of which 71 are from the previous list while the remaining 123 are classified additional.

The so-called additional IFPs include 39 agriculture-related projects that will be implemented by two agencies, namely the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) which has 27 IFPs, and the Department of Agriculture (DA) with the remaining 12 IFPs. These projects are dedicated to water resources for agricultural production through the construction and rehabilitation of different irrigation systems as well as construction to support various stages of production, such as roads, post-harvest facilities, and fish ports, among others.

The sudden boost of agriculture-related infrastructure may seem to be connected with President Marcos Jr’s takeover of the DA leadership since he promised that he would prioritize the modernization and development of the sector through his IFPs. Is the President fulfilling his commitment with these agriculture IFPs?

All hype, no real work

The DA itself recognized that the lack of available infrastructure for agricultural production is one of the factors that have caused declining productivity. The department said that investing in critical infrastructure will solve this and increase agricultural income. The government’s Philippine Development Plan (PDP) on the other hand highlights the importance of agriculture sector modernization.

Of the 39 agriculture-related IFPs, 36 are to be funded through the General Appropriations Act (GAA) or the yearly government budget. The remaining three projects are to be funded through official development assistance (ODA). Amounts are yet to be detailed, but some of the projects are already named in the 2023 GAA.

It may be observed that the DA has a huge budget increase in 2023. A large portion of this increase apparently goes to locally funded and foreign-assisted projects, which grew by a whopping 68% and may be attributed to a 93% increase in the budget for farm-to-market roads. One-third (33%) of the budget of the DA Office of the Secretary goes to the locally funded and foreign-assisted projects, including IFPs.

It would seem that “flagship projects” are big-ticket and large-scale expenses. But the list of agriculture IFPs shows that these are regular annual programs and budget items of the DA and the other projects were already in the pipeline or have been ongoing since the past administrations. It appears that the Marcos Jr administration has simply collected existing infrastructure-related line items such as construction of farm-to-market/mill roads; upgrading and rehabilitation of fish ports; and construction/improvement/rehabilitation of other fishery post-harvest facilities, and reclassified them as IFPs. Additionally, the Farm-to-Market Roads Program which is normally under regular programs, has been reclassified as Locally Funded Projects.

According to the agency, as of October 2022, a total of 67,255 kilometers (km) of Farm-to-Market Roads (FMR) have been finished, which is only 51% of the total road requirement of their estimated need of 131,411 km to benefit 14 million hectares of agricultural lands and fisheries in the country. The agency added that they have a proposal underway for the construction of 43,223 km FMR, but this is still short of the total backlog of 64,155 km.

There is also a severe shortage of post-harvest facilities in the country. The Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech) estimates post-harvest losses for major farm produce ranging from 10 to 50 percent. A study conducted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) has also revealed that post-harvest losses in onions, tomatoes, and mangoes have reached billions of pesos.

Yet, despite the urgency to address this situation, there is no dedicated IFP for large-scale postharvest facilities in the country. And instead of pouring public financing into it, the DA has opened the investment and construction of post-harvest facilities to the private sector. Last year, after attributing high food prices to low agricultural productivity and alleged protectionism policy, the DA through its Undersecretary for Policy and Planning Fermin Adriano called on the private sector to invest in high-value crops and in post-harvest facilities and logistics for the food value chain. The agency said the issues confronting the sector were mainly due to the lack of budget and investments.

On the other hand, NIA is seeing a huge increase in the number of IFPs, from only 9 under the Duterte administration to 27 IFPs under the Marcos Jr administration. Still, 14 of these are irrigation facilities with specific locations while the other half, 13, are regular annual programs of NIA. These are routine budgets allocated for the rehabilitation, repair, restoration, operation, and maintenance of existing irrigation systems.

Similar to the DA’s, the 2023 budget of NIA also increased due to the additional provision for some of the listed IFPs. There is a 30% increase in the current NIA budget from the previous year, but just like with the DA, some of the regular programs of NIA like irrigation development were simply reclassified to Locally Funded Projects.

This does not change the fact that for decades NIA has consistently failed to fulfill its mandate and always fallen below its target. There has been a substantial increase in the yearly budget for irrigation projects especially when the Free Irrigation Services Act under the Duterte administration was enacted, but these projects were poorly executed.

The National Irrigation Master Plan 2020-2030 (NIMP) shows the slowness of irrigation development in the country. It reported that in 2018, the total irrigated area in the country only reached 61.4% of the total irrigable area from the 49.3% level in 2009. This means that the average irrigation development in this period was only 47,272 hectares per year or a 2.5% annual increase. Despite the shoddy implementation and direction of DA and NIA past infrastructure programs, the Marcos Jr administration continues to rely on tried and failed infrastructure orientation to boost agriculture and the economy in general.

Wasting time

The Marcos Jr administration has apparently taken over the reins of the agriculture department at a time of severe food and agriculture crisis, but without much inspiration. The president has gone to the extent of appointing himself as agriculture secretary but only with the unambitious and fragmented plan of simply continuing regular infrastructure projects that have barely made a dent in the numerous issues plaguing the sector.

Investing in infrastructure that will increase productivity is inarguably very much needed. But the presented projects have been in implementation for several years already and have merely yielded unfavorable results. Repackaging these as “flagship” is deceptive and only perpetuates the flawed agricultural program direction of past administrations.

Granting on the other hand that the flagships are original, it should not have deluded the president into thinking that the deep problems of agriculture are solvable simply with infrastructure projects. IFPs alone do not solve the decreasing productivity of the sector – providing direct production support and subsidies to farmers and fishers is the basic start. The DA and NIA can also address the high inputs and irrigation costs. There are many other technologies and facilities, apart from roads and irrigation systems, that the Marcos Jr administration can develop and pour efforts into to genuinely address declining agricultural productivity. These also include agroecological systems that sustain the health, biodiversity and environment of the communities.

It will be one year since Ferdinand Marcos Jr has taken over one of the most vital cabinet positions. No improvement, no development has been felt in the agricultural sector, much less urgent actions to address the numerous crises that the sector faced in the last year. The president has only squandered such an opportunity to make a difference.