As the first budget secretary of the Duterte administration, Mr. Benjamin Diokno established an unshakable and inflexible agricultural policy. We can break down Mr. Diokno’s political prescription into two sentences, which also represented the consensus of the political and economic elite of the time. First of all, forget agriculture, it is a sector in decline. Second, in the event of a food shortage, it suffices to import; importing food is the best economy. Of course, the economic team was a cabal of agricultural development apostates.
Mr. Diokno, during the congressional hearings on the budget, was very outspoken about his bias against agriculture. A representative from the party list who once represented small farmers took notes of Mr Diokno’s harsh and dismissive tone, the sum of his condescending and inflexible reaction to those who pleaded for more farm funds and support.
Six years have passed. And let’s recap what happened to agriculture in the six years of the previous administration. A sector brought to the ground by policies put in place very early on by Mr. Diokno.
The Rice Pricing Act (RTL) passed in early 2019 made the Philippines the largest rice importer in the world that year with 3.1 million metric tons (MT). That was just 10 months of frantic, reckless and over-the-top importing driven by two things: profit and greed. And never the public good. If you don’t believe the criticism that many laws are passed with good intentions but with awful results, just watch the RTL.
This is what the RTL has institutionalized. From 2019 to present, we are the largest or second largest rice importer in the world, importing rice nationwide from China, which has a population of over 1.4 billion and is also “l ‘factory of the world’. We have the worst of both worlds – RTL has turned small rice farmers into dead men and our industrial/manufacturing sector is a global embarrassment. The so-called grand program of the RTL, which drastically reduced rice prices, never materialized. The farmer group Federation of Free Farmers has data on the severe damage inflicted by the RTL on rice farmers and the small gains in terms of price relief for rice consumers.
Another: Because the RTL involved reckless and exaggerated importation of the staple food, another secondary racket flourished as a result of the reckless and relentless imports of rice and that was the huddle of agricultural products.
African swine fever has hit the country’s pig farmers hard from 2019 and so far ASF continues to defenestrate pig farms in Mindanao and many other parts of the country. A pig farmer in my area of Pampanga imported about 100 sows from European sources a few months ago, thinking ASF was finally over. In less than a month, not a single sow survived ASF’s revenge return.
Instead of focusing on the solution through the frantic search for vaccines, the government’s knee-jerk policy response was entirely predictable – lower tariffs on pork via executive orders to encourage… importation. The 11 countries affected by ASF before it was introduced in the Philippines have mostly solved their ASF problem and pig farmers are benefiting from it. As with the negligible impact of the RTL on reducing rice prices, the lower tariffs failed to lower pork prices, still at 300 pesos plus per kilo in the wet or public markets.
A shortage of fish officially recognized by the government but debunked by local fishing groups? No problem. The Department of Agriculture (DA) has given the green light for the import of pelagic fish through the issuance of certificates of necessity. According to the fishermen, most of the imports are pelagic fish from Chinese sellers that were caught by modern Chinese fishing vessels in the Western Philippine Sea.
Prior to the elections, the import of 200,000 metric tons of sugar was approved by the Ministry of Agriculture/Sugar Regulatory Administration but was not executed for one reason or another. Today, this import plan has metastasized into a real scandal. Leocadio Sebastian, a DA undersecretary under the new administration, signed off on a 300,000 metric ton sugar import, without authorizing President Marcos Jr.’s go-ahead signal for imports. Mr. Sebastian has just resigned but n has not given up on usurping the powers of the president. He assumed that it was a nation dependent on the importation of foodstuffs and that permissions to import sugar, even at the expense of sugar producers, are just routine government transactions.
The food import craze sparked by Mr. Diokno’s bias against agriculture has never ceased to reap its brutal wages.
Assuming Mr. Marcos is serious about ending the food import mania, the next big question facing Philippine agriculture is how to undo the ravages of the food import mania that had been the only and single policy of the previous administration. There remains a practical problem to be solved. The architect of the policies that have defenestrated everything agriculture-related is now Mr. Marcos’ Finance Secretary, the primus inter pares of the Cabinet’s economic section. Will Mr. Diokno change his mind and support Mr. Marcos Jr.? Or will he simply silently torpedo his boss’ plans from his powerful position as CFO? Mr. Marcos’ big plans for agriculture will rely heavily on the allocation of massive state resources for the sector. What share of revenue generated and domestic and external borrowing can be devoted to agricultural programs, the major crops led by rice and maize and other critical sub-sectors? Can we redesign customs functions to provide inspection centers at major ports to control the quality of food imports? And prevent the repetition of ASF and others? If you look at the structure of government, we all know, Mr. Diokno, under which jurisdiction both revenue and resource allocation and customs functions fall.
Can Mr. Marcos Jr.’s grand plans for an agricultural renaissance be seamlessly executed with his chief economic officer’s deep-seated and historically proven bias against the sector that Mr. Marcos wants out of his prostrate status? We in the small farming community regard the Marcos-Diokno priority divergence as our minor Game of Thrones. The feeling of the small farmers is this: Mr. Marcos should better say to Mr. Diokno “my way or the highway”. To prevent Mr. Diokno from torpedoing major agricultural projects through underhand maneuvers big and small.