EVERY crisis is an opportunity—and the Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. Agriculture industry experts and stakeholders pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic is the right time to review government policies and investments in rebooting the decades-long neglected sector.
And if indeed the agriculture sector could drive the Philippine economy’s recovery post-pandemic—as what economists and experts pointed out—then a stronger collaboration between the public and private sector is critical in doing so.
This is what resource persons emphasized during the webinar recently organized by the BusinessMirror and Fiera de Manila Inc. on food security challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
If there’s one thing certain that planners for pandemic scenarios must never forget, it’s simply this: the impact of Covid-19 on food security and the economy would linger for years. That’s one of the constant reminders at the webinar on “Challenges in Food Security” by Cold Chain Association of the Philippines Inc. (CCAP) President Anthony S. Dizon.
“Drastic problems require drastic solutions,” he said. “Food security problems are bound to get worse before they get better, particularly as we continue to struggle against Covid-19, African Swine Fever, avian influenza, among others,” he added.
One problem highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic was food wastage, something seen arising from the lack of data to guide production intentions and low consumption by Filipinos of high-value crops, according to the resource persons.
Dizon lamented that there is no available supply demand data that would properly guide farmers’ planting practices even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
This is usually one of the culprits for why oversupply of certain commodities happens—as farmers produce what they deem is profitable without guidance on whether there is an available market for them.
The issue worsened since demand for food products plunged during the Covid-19 as the hotel, restaurant and industrial (HRI) industry partially shut down due to movement restrictions and lockdowns imposed by the government.
Dizon added that the lack of post-harvest facilities is also one reason the country wastes a lot of food.
Excess raw crops or commodities could have been used to produce a value-added product, such as the case of cabbage in the North that could be turned into kimchi.
The oversupply and food wastage issues have indeed prompted the government to implement certain measures to others this decades-long problem. For one, the Department of Agriculture (DA) has allotted at least P20 million to construct a processing facility in Benguet to produce kimchi.
No less than the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has pointed out that reducing food wastage is one way to boost food supply during the Covid-19 pandemic, when production and supply chain is disrupted.
According to Dizon, one of the problems in the food production areas is that farmers produce a single variety of commodity that serves a singular purpose, resulting in saturation of the market, hence, excess supply that is unusable for other purposes.
“Our problems really lie on the production areas so we need to have a rationalized, concerted effort in unifying production efforts to make sure we produce enough of the right food,” Dizon said.
He cited as example the problem of tomatoes in Nueva Vizcaya. “They suffered oversupply because they planted cherry tomato varieties which are only used by households; they cannot be processed into tomato pastes. If it was a different variety then if the household market is saturated then it could be sold to processors to be turned into tomato pastes.”
Dizon also sees a need to improve farming practices, particularly on how commodities are packaged and handled when being transported to market destinations.
Dizon explained that vegetables are still being wrapped in plastic, which he noted results in 30 percent wastage of green leafy vegetables.
Dr. Mary Ann Sayoc, East West Seed Public Affairs lead, sees a huge room for improvement in terms of per capita vegetable consumption in the country, which could reduce food wastage, especially among vegetable crops.
Sayoc said veggie consumption in the past five years has grown to 41 kilograms from 39 kilograms. This, she noted, is already a significant improvement, driven by growing consciousness among consumers to eat healthy foods and availability of produce in the market.
Sayoc pointed out that consumers still drive agricultural production as farmers would produce what the market needs; hence, the need for proper guidance from the government.
“We have a lot of varieties that farmers can choose from. That’s why we need a good integration of production and consumption in the market,” she said.
Sayoc still sees a huge need for expanded consumer education, which could help boost Filipinos’ per capita consumption of vegetables. This consumer education campaign, she pointed out, should start targeting kids to cultivate their palate toward eating vegetables.
Agriculture Assistant Secretary Kristine Y. Evangelista agreed that market-driven production is important since it would mean that farmers would have an assured market and profit for their produce.
BusinessMirror columnist and economist Prof. Rene Ofreneo pointed out that an integrated approach on investing in agriculture is needed to reduce food wastage across the value chain.
Ofreneo emphasized that for the longest time, the country still lacks cold storage facilities, especially for perishable products like vegetables.
“Sino magkukumpas? Sino magbabaston? [Who will serve as the conductor? Or the whip?] That’s why we need an integrated approach to do these changes in terms of investments and policies in the farm sector,” he added.
Localized food production
One issue that drew attention during the Covid-19 pandemic was the need of local government units or areas to have sufficient food supply.
One of the immediate solutions identified in this was the rise of urban gardening or farming, as witness the sudden popularity of quarantine farming, even in condos, giving rise to what are dubbed plantitos and plantitas.
While the growing trend has helped give bored, mostly young people, more worthwhile things to engage in during quarantine, it’s been noted that such practice means producing food only for household consumption, thus needlessly sidelining the opportunities for venturing into agribusiness and selling products or bartering with other urban food producers, Dizon said.
“If all of you in a community produces okra then there is no opportunity for barter,” he said.
Evangelista explained that, indeed, bigger support for localized production is one of the things that the DA is pushing.
She explained that one way to achieve such is through farm consolidation and clustering, which is now a banner program of the DA.
“This is the direction we feel is right with LGUs being our partners in achieving food sufficiency and crop diversification. This is not only to ensure that there is food on the table but there is livelihood for the constituents as well,” Evangelista said.
Sayoc agreed that there is now more emphasis on improving regional food production after the country saw how Covid-19-induced lockdowns disrupted the supply chain, with produce not reaching its market destinations.
“The pandemic prevented traders from coming in, bringing their produce out of their provinces, out of their towns. There we saw the importance of growing your own food or having local food productions,” she said.
Ofreneo noted that some “forward-looking” mayors were able to address the food problems of their constituents by procuring directly from farmers and boosting their own production.
“In the absence of a national land use plan, the role of food production is devolved mainly to LGUs. At their levels, they can do a mapping of what crops they should produce,” he said.
Ofreneo also emphasized the need to review the government’s policies and programs toward agriculture, such as the clamor for deregulation of industries in a time when countries are adopting more protectionist measures to ensure sufficient food stockpile amid uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There is nothing wrong about trading with the world. What is wrong is trading with the world without a clear goal or plan,” he said.
Ofreneo proposed that the government have a holistic review of its “Build, Build, Build” program and align some of the proposed projects toward boosting the agriculture sector.
Image credits: Ivonne Wierink | Dreamstime.com