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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Marcos names new Agri chief

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Tasks fishing tycoon, old friend Francisco Laurel with reining in food prices

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. handed the post of Agriculture secretary to a fishing tycoon on Friday, as the government struggles to rein in surging food prices.

Francisco Laurel, president of the deep-sea fishing company Frabelle Fishing Corp., understood “the problems that agriculture is facing,” Marcos said after swearing in the new secretary.

Marcos made himself Agriculture secretary after becoming president in June 2022 and has overseen a surge in prices for produce, including staples like onions and rice.

He sparked criticism in September when he imposed a temporary price cap on rice, which some economists warned could distort the market and lead to shortages.

Marcos said Laurel’s priority was gaining “control of the prices of all the agricultural commodities that are going up.”

Year-on-year inflation accelerated in September to 6.1 percent, from 5.3 percent in August, driven by a 10 percent rise in food prices.

About a quarter of the country’s labor force works in the agriculture sector, but it accounts for less than 10 percent of the economy, official figures show.

Poor yields, high costs, insufficient investment in irrigation and machinery, lack of access to cold storage facilities and farm-to-market roads, and crop-destroying typhoons have long plagued the sector.

Pest outbreaks as well as soaring oil and fertilizer prices since Russia invaded Ukraine have only added to its woes.

Laurel, 56, said his goal was to ensure that Filipino farmers had abundant harvests and that food was available to consumers “at the right price.”

Frabelle Fishing Corp. is part of a food, real estate and power generation conglomerate.

It has a fleet of more than 100 vessels operating in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, according to its website.

Marcos expressed his confidence in Laurel, saying he had a good understanding of the challenges facing agriculture.

“I have known him since we were boys so, I am in appointing him because I know his character. I know that he is very hardworking,” Marcos said in Filipino.

He said he told the new secretary to focus on agricultural production and mechanization.

“Let’s look at what countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam did. Maybe there is something we can learn that is applicable to the Philippines,” the President said.

Laurel, who contributed P30 million to Marcos’ presidential campaign, said he would continue to carry out the President’s programs.

“My goal is to ensure that our fellow citizens can buy sufficient and nutritious food at the right price. The key to this is the modernization of the agriculture sector, along with improving the welfare of our farmer and fisher brothers,” he said in Filipino.

“I firmly believe that we can increase agricultural production with the help of our President. But I cannot do this alone,” he added.

Legislators led by Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez welcomed the appointment of Laurel as the new Agriculture secretary.

Romualdez said Laurel’s experience in the private sector would help him in his new job.

“The private sector, with its innovation, efficiency, and competitive spirit, has much to offer when integrated with public sector objectives. By merging private sector strategies with the public sector’s broader goals, we can harness the best of both worlds,” Romualdez said.

AGRI Party-list Rep. Wilbert T. Leesaid he is hopeful that the Agriculture department under Laurel’s leadership will mean a more productive era for the agriculture sector.

“We believe that… the administration has taken good steps in developing and providing the necessary support to agriculture. But the challenges facing the sector are still numerous and overwhelming. We hope that with the leadership of Secretary Laurel, the government’s focus will remain on this to finally address the decades-long problems of our countrymen whose livelihoods depend on it,” Lee said.

Reps. Ron Salo of Kabayan and Bernadette Herrera of Bagong Henerasyon congratulated Laurel on his appointment.

“His wealth of experience and dedication to the agricultural sector make him an excellent choice for this vital role,” Salo said.

Herrera said “this long-awaited appointment marks a significant milestone” in the government’s efforts to strengthen and revitalize the agricultural industry.

“Secretary Laurel’s impressive 30 years of experience in the sector is a testament to his deep knowledge and understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” she said.

Economists, too, were hopeful about Laurel’s appointment.

Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. chief economist Michael Ricafort said he hoped Laurel could replicate his business success at the Department of Agriculture.

“Let us see..,” Ricafort said, adding that Laurel needs “to protect his good name and reputation in the business community.”

Security Bank Corp. chief economist Robert Dan Roces said this latest appointment should take a load off the President, who has held the post concurrently since he assumed office.

He said a full-time secretary could put more focus on agricultural output.

The President’s economic team was mum on Laurel’s appointment, and efforts to get comments from them drew no response.

Agricultural stakeholders and business groups welcomed the appointment of Laurel.

The Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. (PAMPI) said they were confident that “a proven and tested agribusiness entrepreneur” such as Laurel would be able to manage the Agriculture portfolio efficiently and well. It vowed its full support and cooperation with the Department of Agriculture under Laurel’s watch.

The Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, Inc (PCAFI) said they have been anticipating the proclamation of a new DA secretary for more than a week now.

“We have preliminary meeting with him two weeks ago and we had expressed our full support and cooperation for the benefit of our agriculture stakeholders. We welcome him and we wish him all the luck and the blessings of our Lord,” said PCAFI president Danny Fausto.

A group of rice traders and miller also expressed support for the new Agriculture secretary. Orlando Manuntag, co-founder of Philippine Rice Industry Stakeholders Movement (PRISM) said the appointment of Laurel “is a good and wise decision by the President.”

“There will be a point person to focus on the DA’s primary goal such as productivity, efficiency and recovery of our agriculture sector,” he said.

Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) president George Barcelon said Laurel is “quite known in the fishing sector not only in the Philippines but globally. His deep fishing ventures extend to as far as South Africa.”

He added that Laurel have been meeting with some Agriculture stakeholders over the last few weeks, probably to familiarize himself with the issues confronting the sector.

Laurel is a graduate of University of Santo Tomas with a degree on computer science.

Frabelle was established in 1966 as a small trawl fishing company before eventually shifting to purse seining small pelagic fish and then to tuna.

By 1981, Frabelle expanded its operations beyond Philippine waters into the Western and Central Pacific regions. It now has a fleet of over 100 vessels and a workforce of 5,000.

Laurel also holds positions in other companies. He is chairman of the Westpac Meat Processing Corp., president of Markham Resources Corp., and chairman of Bukidnon Hydro Energy Corp.

Laurel joined his father in Frabelle in 1985 and succeeded his father as president of the company when he was just 28.

Under his leadership, Frabelle grew into a diversified business with stakes in power generation, real estate, meat and seafood processing, cold-chain network, aquaculture, and shipbuilding and repair.

Fishing remains the core business of Frabelle, the world’s third largest tuna fishing company. It has a major presence in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and has satellite offices in South Africa, Vietnam, Singapore, and China.

Laurel was also president of Agusan Power Corp., which operates a 24.9 megawatt hydro electric power plant in Agusan del Norte. He was also the chairman of the World Tuna Purse Seine Organization that advocates sustainable resource management of fishing operations globally and a member of the Private Sector Advisory Council for Agriculture.

Currently, he is a captain and commander in the Naval Affiliated Reserve Force NCR of the Philippine Navy.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, pointed out possible conflicts of interest.

“Our commercial fishing fleets have recently resisted efforts of the DA to monitor and regulate their operations,” the opposition senator said.

Still, she said she welcomed Laurel’s appointment, after calling for almost two years for the appointment of a full-time secretary.

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