Noynoy should reverse the urban bias of agri policies

BY MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

The economic advisers of President Aquino, if drawn from the same cloth and mind set of the Arroyo advisers, would feed him tons upon tons of hogwash about agriculture.

They would tell him the status quo is better. Such as: importing rice and other basic food stuff makes more sense than energizing agricultural production to a point of achieving self-sufficiency in staple food items. They would cite the supposed monstrous cost of massive agricultural investments and the supposed little returns from these. They will burnish the anti-farm bias with the conventional wisdom that imports are more cost efficient.

The graphs that they would present to the new president would, of course, skip the dark and sinister side of importing our food needs. Such as the 2009 and fist semester of 2010 rice imports, which would total a global high of more than 3.5 million metric tons. Our massive rice imports have been the single biggest factor behind the contended lives of Thai and Vietnamese rice farmers. And the main reason rice prices have remained high in the global market.

In 2007, our rice imports, done recklessly and driven by racketeering, pushed prices to about $1000 per metric ton. Never in the history of the global rice market had prices reached that high.

Importing is easy—and the foreign exporters give huge commissions and offer generous under-the-table deals to the importing authority.

The new president would be fed conventional wisdom, complete with graphs and charts that seem to support the tired, and grafters-driven contention, that it is useless to invest scarce government funds into agricultural productivity.

We, the kind of farmers who do not wave flags but plant and raise hogs and poultry and the like, can only hope that the new president would see through all these slop and policy garbage. And, for a change, reverse the importation-driven policy of the previous administration.

That Noynoy Aquino fully knows the travails and woes of agriculture and the farmers, and is the son of the man who was the main driver of the modernization of Hacienda Luisita’s agricultural practices, give us the feeling that he will indeed, pay attention to the urgency of discarding the policy of importing for our food needs and instead pushing agriculture into its own version of springtime.

What needs to be done is not even rocket science and Ordinary Juans who farm know where the state’s investments should be made. What is required would not even drain the national budget.

First is putting in place a P5-billion starting fund for agri research and development, with minor adjustment every year. This is, without argument, the most cost-efficient agricultural investment. What the Filipino farmers urgently need is a genetic pool of crops and animals that can prodigiously grow under the most hostile—rather challenging—production conditions. R and D specialists can also expand into other areas such as improving health science practices and the development of organic fertilizer (not the garbage we are getting now from the funds of corrupt lawmakers).

We should also stop building the huge and costly dams that abet mass murder during heavy rains and dry up during the summer months. There is a better way to construct smaller but easy-to-maintain irrigation facilities.

The irrigation policy should be reviewed in the wake of the failure of the gargantuan multipurpose dams that cost a fortune—and massive WB loans to build—yet totally unprepared for extreme weather shifts. They can’t even provide irrigation water to their designated service areas whole year-round. Small water impounding systems should ring the countryside and the beauty of these is they can be operated and maintained by the farmers themselves.

The provision of post-harvest facilities is another must. Instead of congressional funds going to basketball courts, the new administration should direct the money into grains silos, solar dryers, canning and storage facilities. Rice farmers have been losing about P15-billion worth of rice a year due to wastage and inadequate post-harvest facilities.

We can even do R and D on rice mills with the maximum yield and almost-zero wastage. We have rice mills with the standard 50- to 60-percent recovery. The beauty of R and D is that it can be applied to almost all agri sub-sectors.

Then, there is this issue of extension support. The Bureau of Agricultural Extension should be plucked from the archives. Armies upon armies of crop, animal and fishery experts should descend once more into the countryside to give extension support.

The roar of their motorbikes would help inject life, dynamism and growth into our dying farming areas.

Can we bring back the “bank on wheels” for one more sweet time? There was a glorious time in our history when banks truly lent to farmers and the proud logos of the lending banks etched on their four-wheel-drives that delivered credit, “door to door.”

Now, we have mothballed not only these bank on wheels. The entire rural credit system is gone and agricultural loans are levied interest rates that are higher than the loans of the country dollar billionaires.

Those wheels, like most of the good things that blessed agriculture in previous generations, had been punctured by a pervasive and destructive urban bias that has dominated the country’s sad and poverty-inducing agricultural policies.

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