The Politics of Agriculture

 "Until we are able to break the monopolistic economic behaviors of those who wield  power, government would remain a neutral player in the market."

The Philippines is an archipelago and a maritime state.  It was for sometime an agricultural country moving to manufacturing and now excelling in what is called as the knowledge industry, with BPO as one of the two growth engines. The other being the export of service and professional workers to the four.corners of the globe. As global citizens, Filipinos are valued added resource to countries that host them. The positive impact has a direct effect to that country's GDP.

But critical to the growth of the country is the contribution of agriculture. Growth in the sector touches rural Philippines. It has a direct impact to poor provinces, which remain tied to agriculture. But the sector has been mired in the politics of production, distribution and food security. Take prime products like rice, sugar, coconut, tobacco and fish harvest from pens as well as small time fishing within municipal waters.  All these are prime commodities bogged down by various policies that have not been clearly defined.

Three things intervene in these products: supply, demand and price. You would think it's a straight up correlation of supply n demand. The bigger supply than demand, the lower the price. Conversely, the small the supply and `the bigger the demand, the higher the price. An extraneous variable would be the middlemen where government intervenes so that there is no market failure with traders dictating price thereby putting farmers n fisher folks at a disadvantage.

So why do we have the problem in the National Food Authority (NFA)? Farmers are selling their harvest to traders because NFA does not bid at par with traders.  Yes, we subsidize agriculture from free irrigation today and farm-to-market roads built since time immemorial, as well as seedlings and other support systems.  Still, NFA would rather import than buy the produce at competitive rates.  There is no issue on having stockpiles for rainy seasons or as reserves for natural disasters but the general proposition remains around supply, demand and price.

In terms of the moribund sugar industry, the sugar producing provinces are banning certain drink products so they can pressure these producers to use local sugar more than imported sugar.  Then, we still have not settled the coconut levy fund and coconut farmers are already reaching the ages where they can no longer be productive and their children and grandchildren have decided that shifting to another job or industry is much better than to till the land.  While tobacco production in the North has been a captive industry in the sense that billions are allotted to local governments  "to boost farmers’ self-reliance in the form of agri-industrial, cooperative, infrastructure and livelihood projects, as well as grant of financial and training support."  Still, after year-to-year allocation from excise tax, tobacco farmers remain poor.  We also have the problem of fish pens creating havoc in lakes with the pens controlling yield leading to marginalized fisher folks settling for crumbs. 

The battle for fishing in municipal waters is another issue that needs to be looked into and reformed.  Equity seems to be a foreign concept in dealing with the built in political play on these products.  The one with power controls and dictates the market behavior, and even with market failure, government seems unable to intervene and protect the powerless.

Until we are able to break the monopolistic economic behaviors of those who wield  power, government would remain a neutral player in the market.  And the invincible hand does not help much when we look at the sad tales of farmers in rice, sugar, coconut, tobacco and fish.  Government must decide to formulate clear policies when intervention is needed to protect the poor and helpless, to balance the greed of economic elites in the industries and to ensure food security.  The priorities must be clear and stable and predictable.

About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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