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Resistance to technology also behind anemic growth in farm sector

/ 05:08 AM December 10, 2018

Four decades since he begun planting palay, Abram Agbayani (not his real name), now 50, still relishes his view of the sunset after a day of toiling in the fields. Despite living in Tarlac province all his life, he has never tired of the countryside’s bucolic charm. It is, after all, a significant part of his life.

The sun’s comings and goings dictate when he should plant and harvest his crops, and how much he’d earn in a year. Too much sun or the lack of it can kill his livelihood. The same goes for the rain. As in all things, in agriculture, moderation is key.

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But changing weather patterns, the unusually heavy rains, the prolonged droughts and other unseasonal phenomenon that have exposed the vulnerability of small farm holdings have made him wonder about the future of his trade.

His uncertainly has allowed his two sons to exchange their plow for a pen, the fields for a school. Sadly, Agbayani acknowledged that he might be the last person in the family to cultivate the land. A better life, he had to admit, awaits those who have finished school.

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His story is typical. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that Filipino farmers are getting fewer and older, and agricultural lands, smaller.

A shortage of Filipino farmers looms in 15 years, grimly pronounced Director Asterio Saliot of the Agriculture Training Institute.

The same is true in the sugar industry, where more and more farm workers turn to construction work to take home better pay. According to Sugar Regulatory Administration chief Hermenegildo Serafica, the agency had to make adjustments in its production outlook this year as reports from different provinces show that the country’s sugar farmers have been gradually abandoning their scythes for shovels.

Aging farmers, work migration, unpredictable weather patterns, the shrinking size of agricultural lands as they get converted into real estate are some of the factors behind the anemic performance of the country’s agriculture sector.

To ensure the country’s food security despite thinning human resources, the Department of Agriculture has turned to farm mechanization.

But is the agency doing enough to push mechanization?

New technologies

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The slow adoption of new technologies by the country’s agriculture sector has impeded its growth compared to other sectors of the economy.

Compared to other sectors such as services and industry, which both grew by 6.9 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively, the agriculture industry is lagging behind when its growth contracted to 0.4 percent due to recent storms and late planting of crops.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia has blamed the sector for dragging down the country’s economic growth, with think tank Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) saying in a report that the sector “is revolutions behind the absorption of technology.” This has affected its productivity, the report added.

Compared to several countries, the Philippines remains in the mechanization phase, said Trade Assistant Secretary Rafaelita Aldaba. Other countries have meanwhile been reaping the benefits of innovations in such areas as robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

Mechanization is considered part of the world’s second industrial revolution, while breakthroughs in robotics are part of the fourth industrial revolution (FIRe). This shows that the Philippines is at least two revolutions behind when it comes to technology.

Lack of spending for infra Aldaba has described the agriculture sector as the “weakest link” in the country, citing data from 2000 to 2017 that showed the sector’s declining growth rate from 3.2 percent to 1.4 percent.

According to PIDS, the lackluster acceptance and adoption of new technologies may partly be explained by the government’s lack of spending for infrastructure, as well as science and technology geared toward agriculture.

There is also a lack of research discussing the gains and impacts of such investments across administrations.

Not sexy

“R&D (research and development) is not sexy, that’s why lawmakers don’t give it much attention,” said Bruce Tolentino, a member of the central bank’s monetary board, who also served as a director of the International Rice Research Institute.

For the official, there should be a wholistic government approach to agriculture, which should include research on crop varieites resilient to climate change, proper management of water and irrigation systems, measures that will manage pests and crop diseases, as well as efficient crop insurance.

Currently, the Department of Agriculture and its agencies have made strides in trying out these measures, although another problem faces the industry which may need more than just research and funding to hurdle.

“It’s not that we don’t have the capacity to mechanize, but there is too much resistance from stakeholders to embrace modern technology,” Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol lamented.

Take the case of Rey Amurao, a 43-year-old farmer who has been planting rice and mung beans since he was a child. While he admitted that using hybrid seeds gives farmers a higher yield, he prefers to use inbred seeds because “hybrid seeds contain chemicals.”

Said Amurao: “I like being a farmer because we get to produce what we need to eat. We don’t have to go to the market and pay for it. And that’s why I want my produce to be organic.”

Hybrid not dangerous?

However, studies have shown that using hybrid seeds is not dangerous. In fact, the government has allocated part of its budget to buy and distribute the seed variant. This year, Piñol has advocated the use of hybrid seeds and wants a million hectares of farmland planted to hybrid rice.

Tolentino said the government must help reduce the risks of investing in agriculture by providing basic infrastructure—including roads, power and transport—to encourage the private sector in financing agricultural-related projects.

While not the most important factor in improving the industry, financing funnels resources to provide education, equipment and technology, among others, to farmers.

The marriage of efforts between the public and private sectors, Tolentino added, should result in a more robust performance of the agriculture industry.

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