Marcos warns of ‘modest’ agri gains being upended by El Niño

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. said on Tuesday that the upcoming El Niño dry spell is threatening to upend “modest gains” made in agriculture in recent months.

In a speech at the 125th anniversary of the Department of Agriculture (DA), Mr. Marcos also promised to address the challenges agriculture continues to face, like “decreasing productivity, climate change (and) diminishing natural resources.”

The El Niño event, projected to emerge sometime between July and September, is expected to drag down growth in agriculture, which expanded 2.1% in the first quarter, a turnaround from the 0.3% decline posted a year earlier and a 1% contraction in the fourth quarter of 2022.

The last El Niño took place in 2019, causing as much as P8 billion worth of damage to agriculture.

Agriculture accounts for about a 10th of the Philippines’ gross domestic product.

Mr. Marcos, in his speech, said the DA must “continue to adopt and utilize the latest technologies and practices” to enhance agricultural productivity and attract foreign investment.

He said climate-mitigation practices and technology can make agriculture sector resilient to future shocks.

“Moving forward, the DA will continue to devise interventions to advance our agri-fishery practices, improve the competitiveness of our agri-fishery products, (and) further boost the income of our farmers and fisherfolk,” he said.

Mr. Marcos, who is also Secretary of Agriculture, promised to expand market reach for farmers “by enhancing our physical and our digital infrastructure (and) leveraging private sector investment.”

He said the DA should continue to engage in collaborative dialogue with experts, researchers, and rural workers to “solve the root causes of the lingering problems.”

The Philippines imports much of its food and farm inputs, making it vulnerable to imported inflation.

In a recent World Bank report, the Philippines ranked first in a group of 16 countries in terms of regressive output subsidies, followed by Mexico, Canada, Japan, and Vietnam.

“We have all heard the issues of food supply, of food prices, of supply chain problems. And these are all of the things that we have to overcome if we are going to be able to say that the DA has achieved its ultimate goal and that we are able to provide to Filipinos all of the food supply,” Mr. Marcos said, adding that the industry’s contribution to nutrition should be considered in assessing the DA’s success.

Mr. Marcos has been urged by opposition legislators to appoint his replacement as Secretary of Agriculture.

In a statement on Tuesday, ACT Teachers Party-list Rep. France L. Castro said the DA needs a full-time Secretary “who truly understands and knows the solutions to the agricultural as well as agrarian problems of the country.” 

“Unfortunately, the remedies being implemented by the DA under Marcos are mostly band-aid solutions and entail the importation of key agricultural products like rice, sugar, onions, and the like,” she said.

“Instead of helping farmers, such measures further mire them deeper into poverty but at the same time make agricultural importers richer,” Ms. Castro said. “Unless genuine agrarian reform coupled with full support of the government to farmers is implemented, (alongside the suspension of) land conversion, our agricultural sector will die even if President Marcos stays there up to 2028.”

The DA has addressed food inflation by, among other things, organizing subsidized stores allowing farmers to sell directly to consumers.

The Kadiwa stores allow sellers to offer low prices because the government pays for transport costs and other expenses.

Kadiwa stores have been accused of seizing markets from small- and medium-sized traders who had been weakened by the pandemic, with economists saying that any discussion of the program needs to consider the level of public funding it is receiving.

“It may still be fairly early to tell whether we are now realizing the benefits of prices saved vs. investment spent,” agroforestry researcher Ayn G. Torres told BusinessWorld earlier. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza