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Private sector must move

The private sector in agriculture must move now. Otherwise, we may experience the same sad agriculture outcome that happened to us 26 years ago. This was when we joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994.

Unlike Vietnam that took the necessary steps to prepare for WTO and are now far ahead of us, we are still not taking some of those preparatory steps. As a result, we are lagging far behind.

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This time, it’s the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP), a more expanded trade agreement than WTO that will increase our agriculture subsidized imports.

Unless we take the necessary preparatory steps, this will lead to job cuts and an increase in poverty incidence. But if we prepare like Vietnam, it is an opportunity to compete effectively on a global scale.

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There is a problem. The Department of Agriculture (DA) has stated officially that there are no agriculture threats from RCEP. Therefore, no need to take preparatory steps. On Feb. 4, 104 organizations submitted a signed letter to the Senate strongly disputing this. What, then, is the truth?

Past events

The competent and commendable staff of DA’s legislated public-private sector Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries (PCAF) had been conducting regularly quarterly meeting of its International Relations Committee for more than 10 years on topics like RCEP.

However, for the last two years prior the RCEP’s planned ratification, all these committee meetings were abolished. To the surprise and dismay of our agriculture stakeholders, they were told that no changes could be made to the RCEP. These could have been done during the two years when the PCAF international committee did not meet, but nothing else can be done now.

From a national perspective, if RCEP benefits industry by 10 points and harms agriculture by four points, the net advantage for the country would be to join RCEP. But with a few months’ delay that will allow agriculture to take the critical and necessary preparatory steps if backed by political will, agriculture will not be left so far behind. This is what India is wisely doing now.

If RCEP is approved immediately, agriculture issues would likely be forgotten again. This delay would force attention to be given to agriculture so that serious defects can be corrected. This presents a valuable opportunity for change.

Getting the facts

The question is: are we interested in getting the facts before we make such a critical RCEP decision? DA claims there are no threats, but 104 organizations vehemently contested this in a Feb. 3 Senate submission. Should the DA and the private sector not therefore meet to hear both views and come out with a win-win solution?

This was officially proposed by the private sector and approved unanimously at the national PCAF semi-annual meeting last Jan. 5.

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However, some in the DA bureaucracy, instead of supporting the DA Secretary’s vision of a better agriculture, did not follow this direction. The RCEP issue was instead shelved in favor of other items like the DA anti-smuggling drive.

Even in that aspect, instead of the Bureau of Customs Commissioner presenting anti-smuggling results to the more than 120 committee participants, a Customs Operations Officer reported a P50-illion smuggled rice operation. He did not explain it in the context of the massive P8.85-billion revenue loss from smuggling reported by BOC itself from March 2019 to October 2021.

Since RCEP was not taken up despite the Jan. 5 national PCAF direction, the private sector suggested that this critical RCEP meeting to decide on immediate urgent preparatory action should be held within two weeks. Those two weeks have passed, and there is still no word when that meeting will be.

Action needed

We call on the 104 private sector organizations to go beyond merely stating that there are threats, to actually identifying the RCEP threats confronting them and specifying the swift action that must be taken.

They can send their written input to the Federation of Free Farmers, which has been a leader in these discussions: email [email protected] or phone 8647-1451.

These inputs will then be consolidated by a group and submitted to the President, who had promised he would strongly support agriculture at the start of his term, the Senate, DA and most importantly, traditional and social media.

This way, the necessary preparatory steps can be taken. The private sector must move now, or face an even bleaker agriculture future.

The author is Agriwatch chair, former Secretary of Presidential programs and projects and former undersecretary of DA and DTI.

Contact is [email protected]

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