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‘Bayanihan’ in agriculture

With today’s pandemic and the proposed additional COVID-19 P1.2-trillion budget, we surely need more “bayanihan” in our agriculture. This may not happen. What exactly is bayanihan? There are two definitions from lexico.com: “A traditional system of mutual assistance in which members of a community work together to accomplish a difficult task” and “a spirit of civic unity and cooperation among Filipinos.” We lack both in agriculture. This is, in part, why agriculture grew by an average of only 1.6 percent compared to industry’s 6.8 percent in the last six years. An Alyansa Agrikul­tura leader has said : “We should not go back to normal, because normal was the problem.”

In agriculture, community should be emphasized much more, with the focus on local levels. During the lockdown, people realized that locally determined production and marketing are more useful than many top-down national initiatives that are not responsive to actual community needs. This is why the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (Afma) should be implemented.

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Under Afma, the public-private National Agriculture and Fisheries Council (NAFC) has a mandate to establish a nationwide network of agriculture and fisheries councils to serve as forum for consultation and continuing discussions within the agriculture and fisheries sectors.” Agriculture and Fisheries Councils (AFCs) are established, but poorly utilized. The private sector has at least 60 percent of the membership. They have an elected private sector chair and a government vice chair. These provincial and municipal agriculture and fisheries councils should be empowered to provide the decentralized “community” component of bayanihan.

Unity should also be ensured. The national general directives should guide locally implemented programs for cohesiveness. For this purpose, Afma has mandated the creation of sectoral committees. They include clustered commodity groups such as rice and food staples; poultry, livestock, and feeds; and high value crops. Other committees cover policy and cross-functional concerns such as international trade and climate change.

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Unfortunately, last Jan. 27, probably without the details known to Agriculture Secretary William Dar (who strongly advocates increased private sector participation), a Department of Agriculture director announced the abolition of these committees. In addition, the Senate cut by 46 percent the 2020 budget proposed by the Office of the President and the House of Representatives for the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries (formerly NAFC). Since then, the sectoral committees have been nonexistent.

With the pandemic, these committees should be restored immediately. Not only can they monitor use of the additional COVID-19 funds; they can also provide valuable input to guide critical government decisions.

The Rice and Food Staples Committee composed of farmers, millers, traders, processors, financiers, academe and consumers can give their insights on the following positions of a farmer leader:

1. We need rice. Even with the government-approved 300,000-ton importation, there remains a shortfall of 1.3 million tons, which the private sector can import. However, the Bureau of Plant Industry has approved private sector safety applications for 2.7 million tons.

2. Since farmer incomes fell last year (as of October) by 62 percent to P12,040 per hec­tare from an average of P31,670 due to the rice tarrification law, farmers may not be motivated to plant again, especially with a possible flood of imports which will depress palay prices.

3. The farmer’s recommendation is to guarantee a favo­rable palay floor price (which other governments do) and a responsive crop insurance for calamities. With these measures, farmers will be motivated to plant. Besides, it involves such a small amount compared to the P1.2-trillion COVID-19 budget, and it may not even be used if there will be no flood or calamity.

Systematic private sector input on this recommendation through the sectoral committee would help a government decision. Following Dar’s strong advocacy for more private sector participation, we should immediately implement bayanihan in agriculture. This is for both the community component through the municipal and provincial AFCs, as well as the unity component through the NAFC national sectoral committees, which incidentally follow the Afma law. INQ

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The author is Agriwatch chair, former Secretary of Presidential Programs and Projects and former undersecretary of Agriculture and Trade and Industry. Contact him via [email protected]

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