Modern agriculture key to easing poverty

Modernizing the agriculture sector holds the key to reducing, if not eliminating, rural poverty in the Philippines. And part of the modernization process is farm diversification, or a more balanced agricultural production that is not necessarily focused on the rice sector.

I believe Agriculture Secretary William Dar, given his technical expertise, is the right man to bring the traditional sector to the modern age.

He has that mindset of making farmers entrepreneurs. He subscribes to the idea that for farmers to survive global agriculture, they must modernize to give them a chance to eventually export their produce.

The services and industry sectors grew in line with the 6-percent average expansion of the gross domestic product in the past few years, but our agriculture sector lagged behind with a paltry annual growth of just 1 percent to 2 percent, and even a contraction in case of severe weather disruptions.

Such is the case in 2015 when the sector shrank 0.1 percent. It rebounded slightly by 1.4 percent in 2016 and sustained it with a moderately strong expansion of 3.95 percent in 2017, before barely expanding by 0.56 percent in 2018.

Millions of Filipinos still depend on agriculture and fisheries for their income. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority show the sector employed 10.26 million Filipinos or about a quarter of the total labor force in 2017. Nearly half of farmers and fishers were self-employed whose income was mainly seasonal.  An onslaught by a typhoon could easily submerge or wipe out a season worth of crops.

Filipino farmers are among the poorest because of low farm productivity and seasonal income, ancient farming technology, limited crop diversification and the lack of access to the export market. This is why many of the children of our farmers decided to switch to other sectors, leaving agriculture in the hands of their aging parents. The situation is exacerbated by climate change that manifests in either long drought or powerful storms.

Fortunately, Secretary Dar knows the sector well. He received his PhD in Horticulture from UP Los Baños in Laguna, taught at Benguet State University and served as the first director of the Bureau of Agricultural Research in 1988 and the director of the Philippine Council for Agricultural Research and Rural Development in 1994.

He had a successful stint as the director general of India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, a research center in the influential Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.

As a specialist, he employs a scientific approach and uses evidence for decision-making. This is what we need if we are to pursue the modernization of the agriculture sector and achieve a more balanced growth that covers all crops, aside from rice, corn and coconut.

We know from our travels abroad that modern farming methods can improve the quantity and quality of crops. Thailand, for example, is known for its excellent fruit harvests and aquaculture products aside from being a major rice exporter.

In a policy paper, Dar said agriculture requires a “new thinking” to achieve a new level of modernization and industrialization.

To improve farmers’ income, he pushes for the sector’s modernization, industrialization, export promotion, consolidation of small- and medium-sized farms, infrastructure development, higher budget and investment in agriculture, legislative support and road-map development.

I believe diversification will reduce farmers’ dependence on a single crop like rice. We have a growing market for all types of crops, especially with the young generation’s increasing preference for all-natural and healthy products.

With a rapidly growing population, demand for food in the Philippines will also rise and the local market will always have an appetite for fresh produce from our farmers. What our farmers need is a guidance from technical experts, like Secretary Dar, on how to produce better crops at a more efficient way in order to beat the cost and quality of imported items.

In other words, Filipino farmers should be equipped with modern technologies to produce world-class products and thrive in the era of globalization.

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