Agreeing agriculture as a super priority – Manila Bulletin
At the end of June, the Philippines will inaugurate the newly elected administration led by Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. A lot of hopes and aspirations are invested in the new government on the back of the overwhelming number of votes won by the elected president and his vice president. .
Even before assuming the leadership role, President-elect Marcos, Jr. is already treading water with a number of irresistible woes besetting the nation – rising fuel prices, runaway inflation, the depreciation of the peso, a soaring budget deficit, the lingering threat of a surge in COVID cases and food supply disruptions, among others. A reason for a break? It sounds more like an urgent call to rush to me.
But all is not as bad as it seems. The Philippines’ economic fundamentals are still solid. OFW remittances are buoyant, our sovereign debt rating is stable, Q1 GDP growth was solid at 8.3%, unemployment is down and consumer spending is up. Certainly, inflation must be brought under control, but great care must be taken not to stifle the nascent economic recovery in the bud. After all, the biggest worry for businesses outside of inflation is probably stagflation or, worse, a recession – especially so soon after the devastation wrought by the pandemic.
New economic managers will certainly find a way forward. I am very encouraged by the early tone given by the new Finance Secretary, Benjamin Diokno, that we can grow despite the headwinds facing us. Yet I have cautious optimism given the rush of international institutions to revise global economic growth forecasts.
Beyond the short to medium term horizon, however, there are more structural concerns that have been revealed by the pandemic in its immediate aftermath. The one that really strikes me as surprising is the country’s food security or, more specifically, the lack thereof. Recently, we have had to resort to increased imports of basic products such as rice, pork and, more recently, chicken. Even vegetables would be imported from China. Of course, a number of externalities such as the spread of African swine flu, rising livestock feed prices and damage from natural disasters have all contributed to the need to increase our supplies and stabilize rising prices. On the other hand, I think there is a lot to be done to reduce our vulnerability by defining an integrated national master plan that will tackle the systemic flaws in our local supply chain. The recent announcement by President-elect Marcos that he will lead the Ministry of Agriculture gives hope that much-needed reform is underway.
Amid the pandemic, it was painful to hear reports of fresh produce being dumped due to the inability to get goods to market. Additionally, the cost of farmland intervention for consumers could drive up prices, making imports relatively cheaper. Just recently, I heard that farm gate prices for squash, for example, could drop as low as 40 pesos per kilo at source. By the time it hits supermarket shelves, it could sell for up to 120 pesos. That’s quite a disparity by any measure. Additionally, productivity issues could also be responsible for our inability to maximize agricultural production.
I am not an expert in agro-economics nor a professional in the field of micro-enterprises or cooperative management. What I do know, however, is that an agriculture-based economy like the Philippines should at least be able to feed its people at reasonable prices.
A few weeks ago, my hopes of making even small progress towards food security were fueled by a movement called Agripreneur Harvest Love (AHL). It is a social enterprise that involves organizing farmers so that they can easily access markets, earn a fair return on their produce, and use clean, ethical, safe and sustainable means of food production. These are noble missions, yes, but I see them more as a journey than a destination. It starts as a modest move that can eventually grow into a more compelling partnership. AHL aims to reduce, if not eliminate, the levels of middlemen by connecting farmers directly to consumers.
By connecting farmers directly to consumers, AHL is able to help farmers sell their produce at fair prices while giving shoppers the ability to purchase fresh, supermarket-quality produce at source-direct prices. It’s a win-win situation. If farmers make better profits, then they can invest to adopt more sustainable farming methods and improve productivity.
The model looks simple and straightforward. Maybe that’s what will make it work. We have to start somewhere and I’m convinced AHL is onto something really exciting.
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