Perhaps buoyed by the surprising positive performance of Philippine agriculture in the first quarter of 2017, there seems to be some blooming of optimism among our civil servants at the Department of Agriculture (DA). It’s been some time since any good news has come to this sector of the economy.
During the period from January to March this year, the country’s agricultural sector grew 5.28 percent compared to the same period in 2016, the first time this has happened after experiencing several quarters of decline.
Even the Asian Development Bank singled out the agriculture sector in a recent report, giving it a thumbs-up in terms of prospects for the rest of the year, noting that its strong performance in the first quarter was an indication that farms were finally recovering from the destructive effects of El Niño last year.
Of course, other factors could be cited for agriculture’s improved performance, such as the continued strengthening of the world economy. Even in our part of the world, economies like China and South Korea are showing stronger growth, while Japan is exhibiting signs of improved manufacturing output.
In the Philippines in particular, indicators like higher public investment especially during the first quarter, continued robust consumption because of continued increases in remittances, expansion of the business process outsourcing sector, and rising exports are all signs of better days to come.
There’s the promise of even bigger spending on infrastructure under the government’s Build Build Build pledge, plus the effect of the expected passage of the first part of the Department of Finance’s tax reform proposal later this year that will see more families having bigger disposable incomes from foregone income tax payments.
Perhaps too, our agriculture bureaucrats are sensing that something drastic has to be done to reverse the negative growth performance of recent quarters, and to play catch up with competing economies that have been outperforming our farming and fisheries output.
Faced with decreasing incomes, farmers and fishermen are moving out of agriculture to seek better incomes to keep their families alive. Their output had been severely affected by weather changes during the past years, and the promise of recovery has been taking too long.
According to a report by the Philippine Statistics Authority, farm areas have been shrinking by an average of 0.5 percent every year for the last five years. Not only has palay and corn been affected, but also camote, onion, cabbage, tomato, mongo and peanut.
Aside from the phenomenon of farmers leaving the land to waste, the increasing encroachment of housing projects and industrial estates on arable land has caused the size of farming hectares to decrease. Land banking has also been mentioned as a contributory factor.
Of concern also is the rising agricultural import bill, which grew almost 22 percent last year compared to the previous year. On the other hand, agricultural exports improved by five percent, made possible by larger copra and banana sales abroad.
For the fisheries sector, climate change and overfishing in coastal areas have weighed on small fishermen. On the other hand, the growing number and increasing robustness of fish farms have made up for any drop in coastal fishing volumes.
With the problems faced by the agriculture sector, our concerned bureaucrats have been setting up new targets. Back again is the objective of ramping up rice production to a level where imports are only needed to shore up emergency stocks.
For this, the DA is pushing hard to popularize hybrid varieties of rice which can yield more for every hectare of land planted. This is expected to increase the earnings of farmers from rice production and make them stay in their farms.
The National Irrigation Administration has committed to provide irrigation to 65 percent of the 3.1 million hectares of irrigable land by 2022. This free irrigation is expected to boost farmers’ yields while bringing down cropping expenses by six percent.
Similarly, farmers are encouraged to intensify the production of garlic and onions to supply about 50 percent and 80 percent, respectively, of national consumption.
To compete with imports, farmers have been introduced to better varieties with increased yields, as well as new technologies that will allow for two-cycle planting. New channels of distribution that eliminate layers of middlemen have also been arranged.
In minimizing the importation of meat, milk and milk products, the DA has committed to increase livestock production. Particularly for cattle, a five-year road map aims to double cattle population from 2.5 million to five million while raising milk production from one percent to 10 percent of the national requirement.
Backyard hog raising will also be intensified, with emphasis on improving the quality of livestock to satisfy the more stringent requirements of big commercial food processing companies and to increase yields to be able to fill in the demand in wet markets and supermarkets.
In fisheries, following an intensified campaign against illegal fishing, the DA launched the National Inland Fisheries Development Program that would repopulate lakes, rivers and creeks with over 200 million fingerlings.
More fiberglass fishing boats are also being made available to poor fishing communities to help improve their ability to catch fish. The target is to release 35,000 units by the end of Duterte’s term.
After years of neglect by previous administrations, Philippine agriculture faces the huge task of modernizing – from introducing new soft and hard technologies, employing more mechanical tools in the various stages of agricultural production, and to persuading farmers to become more business savvy.
Agribusiness must become a way of life for rural communities where farm and fishing communities are able to band together to implement better business plans that would improve not just their production, but also their incomes.
The country needs to develop its ability to locally manufacture farm implements that can compete with the quality of imported equipment.
The impetus for growth is plainly written on the wall: We are a country with a fast-growing population of over 100 million enjoying improved quality of life. Perhaps this time, the laid-out formula for agricultural growth will be able to keep pace.
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