Agreeing on agri as a super priority

Published June 27, 2022, 6:18 AM

by Vince Socco

At the end of June, the Philippines will usher in the newly elected administration led by Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. A lot of hopes and aspirations are vested in the incoming government on the back of the overwhelming number of votes won by the President-elect and his Vice President.

Even before assuming the mantle of leadership, President-elect Marcos, Jr. is already treading water with a number of compelling woes that are besetting the nation – rising fuel prices, runaway inflation, a depreciating peso, a ballooning fiscal deficit, the continuing threat of a resurgence in COVID cases and food supply disruptions, among others.A cause for pause? Sounds more like an urgent call to hit the ground running to me.

But not all is as bad as it seems. The economic fundamentals of the Philippines are still strong. OFW remittances are buoyant, our sovereign debt rating is stable, GDP growth in the first quarter was at a robust 8.3%, unemployment is falling and consumer spending is growing.To be sure, inflation has to be tamed but extreme care must be taken not to nip the nascent economic recovery in the bud. After all, the bigger worry of business outside of inflation is, probably, stagflation or, worse, a recession – especially so soon after the ravages wrought by the pandemic.

The new economic managers will definitely find a path forward.I am very much encouraged by the early tone set by the incoming Finance Secretary, Benjamin Diokno, that we can grow ourselves through the headwinds that confront us. Still, mine is a guarded sense of optimism given the rush by international institutions to revise global economic growth forecasts.

Beyond the near to mid-term horizon, however, there are more structural concerns that have been exposed by the pandemic in its immediate aftermath. One that really strikes me as startling is the country’s food security or, more precisely, the lack of it. Recently, we have had to resort to increased importations of such basics as rice, pork and, more recently, chicken. Even vegetables are reportedly being brought in from China. Of course, a number of externalities such as the spread of African Swine Flu, a rise in livestock feed prices and damages from natural calamities all contributed to the need to augment our supplies and stabilize rising prices. On the other hand, I think that there is a lot that can be done to reduce our vulnerability by defining an integrated national blue print that will address the systemic flaws of our local supply chain. The recent announcement by President-elect Marcos that he will head the Department of Agriculture is a source of hope that much needed reform is on its way.

In the midst of the pandemic, it was painful to hear reports of fresh produce being dumped because of the inability to get the goods to market. Moreover, the cost of intervention from the farmlands to the consumers could be driving prices higher, thus making imports relatively cheaper. Just recently, I heard that farm prices of gourd, for example, could be as low as 40 pesos per kilo at the source. By the time it reaches the supermarket shelves, it could sell for as much as 120 pesos. That is quite a disparity by any measure. In addition, productivity issues could also be a culprit in our inability to maximize farm output.

I am not an agri-economics expert nor am I a professional in the field of micro enterprises or cooperative management. What I do know, though, is that an agriculture-based economy like the Philippines should at least be able to feed its people at reasonable prices.

A couple of weeks back, my hopes of making even some small progress towards food security were fuelled by a movement called Agripreneur Harvest Love (AHL). This is a social enterprise that involves organizing farmers so that they are able to gain ready access to markets,earn a fair return on their produce and employ clean, ethical, safe and sustainable means of food production. These are lofty missions, indeed, but I look at it more as a journey than a destination. It is starting as a modest movement that can eventually grow into a more compelling partnership. AHL aims to reduce – if not eliminate – layers 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 market prices while giving buyers a chance to purchase fresh, supermarket quality produce at direct-from-source prices. It’s a win-win situation. If farmers make better profits, they can then invest to adopt more sustainable farming methods and improve productivity.

The model seems simple and straightforward. Maybe that’s what will make it work. We need to begin someplace and, I am convinced, that AHL is onto something really exciting.

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