Rebooting agricultural management


As discussed in a forum that explored a government “to-do” list as Congress reopens and starts with renewed vigor from fresh new legislators and heartening approvals for the Executive from the public, after passing needed legislation, we need to focus on rebooting agricultural management.

Its criticality cannot be denied given the disturbing downsides even under former Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, carried over from systemic flaws and fraud from the Aquino administration.

For the economy to achieve its targets, the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development, proposed a reboot of our agricultural programs, among other things. Given that the sector accounts for a third of domestic productivity, agriculture is indeed among our highest priorities.

Allow us to review its decline and the consequences of an overwhelming and unhealthy focus on patronage politics.
There is no better example of lazy “Noynoying” than that inflicted on the sector by the government of Benigno Aquino III. Kicking off with a rehashed “Build, Operate and Transfer” scheme Aquino’s “monkey see, monkey do” model was focused on creating consortia most of which ignored agricultural productivity. Their natural impetus was on returns on investments and quick bucks. Where agriculture was concerned even as huge requisite funds were needed, margins were thin and payback periods, long.

Rather than choose to tackle the agricultural dilemma head-on, the strategy eventually pursued was simply to ignore the problem. Trust a bungling dispensation to find innovative ways to worsen a bad situation.

Surrendering to the wishes of presidential whisperers and influence peddlers and not knowing any better, Aquino appointed to the DA a Liberal Party-mate. He was not alone. Aquino’s appointee joined other similarly skewed officials hitched to his bandwagon. Giving new meaning to the term gullible, his travails in agriculture continued even where his appointee ended up accused of malversation and corruption.

All post-Aquino administration analyses declared that the sector had not only been sorely ignored and rendered unproductive but where high-level corruption seeped into it, the net effect was a sector so victimized by “Noynoying” that it was populated by the economy’s poorest and most indigent.

Do the arithmetic. The economy in 2015 grew by as much as 6 percent. Agriculture which accounts for 33 percent of GDP contributed only 0.3 percent.

Not that Malacañang cared to fix the problem. Aquino’s signature cop-out was to retain corrupt incompetents even where they were surrounded with charges of ineptitude and corruption. As a palliative Aquino resorted to what his presidential whisperers did best — create “alternate realities” and force those down the public’s collective throats.

Alongside one incompetent, Aquino simply added another.

Then idling away, Francis Pangilinan was tending to his organic garden when Aquino tasked him with a mandate that dovetailed and duplicated those of the DA Secretary. Two zeros equal zero. By the end of Aquino’s term the sector registered an effective growth rate of zero.

Unfortunately, not only did the Duterte administration inherit this headache, it created some of its own where the eventual 2018 rice crisis essentially resulted in a one-way increase in aggregate prices.

While tariffication addressed some of the demand side concerns by removing import selectivity, domestic farm production suffered and the needs of rice farmers remain unaddressed. To attain a 2 percent growth for the sector some real brainpower, elbow grease and private capital infusion are needed to reboot the sector.

Mechanization and corporate farms are options where private-public consortia might explore and derive elusive viabilities. But that’s a tectonic paradigm shift for a sector trapped over two centuries in the past where infrastructure and ancient technologies are concerned.

Wherever the solutions lie, job one will still be to appoint a competent and honest technocrat to the DA. That hasn’t been done in almost 10 years.