But that’s why he is President.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., by the grace of God and the will of the people the president of the land, should have known, when he decided to be the concurrent agriculture secretary, what a difficult job he has chosen to undertake.
Or whoever advised him to take on the additional responsibility should have studied first whether the president’s experience as a local executive was enough background for the job.
To be fair, looking for someone to handle agriculture at this point is itself very difficult.
Food security, which, simply put, is having accessible and affordable food for the population, is almost wholly in the hands of the Department of Agriculture.
Although food processing, classified as manufacturing, may be under the ambit of the DTI, the fact is the local raw materials that are processed are DA’s concern.
And because we have not been self-sufficient in food products, processors have turned largely to imports which are cheaper and where volumes required are assured.
Let me list down the many problems of Philippine agriculture, which make the job of secretary very challenging.
First, we have a very large population compared to the size of our arable land, dispersed as these are into several islands.
112 million mouths have to be sustained by 30 million hectares, steep mountain terrain included. By contrast, 68 million Thais are sustained by a huge land mass of more than 51 million hectares.
Worse, when the price of viands, whether fish, pork, chicken, eggs or vegetables, rise beyond the poor family’s purchasing ability, the per capita consumption of rice goes further up.
Next problem is irrigation, which has been hugely mismanaged for decades since after President Marcos Sr.
Add to that the fact that we do not have as great freshwater sources of water, no big rivers like the Mekong in IndoChina.
Mindanao has the Agusan River and the Rio Grande, plus Lake Lanao and Mainit, which, properly developed, could be sources of irrigation water.
However the soil in many parts of the island are not necessarily optimal for palay, although lack of nutrients can be solved by technology.
Palay, we have often written in this space, is a grass that requires huge volumes of water.
However, when the palay stalks are nearing harvest, and too much rainwater floods the plains, we have a problem.
And using hybrid seeds instead of certified inbred seeds does not solve the problem.
The cost of hybrid seeds plus the inputs required will make rice even more expensive, catering to a limited consumer segment, while farmers with small uneconomical plots of land can hardly afford the same.
A major variable that bedevils farm productivity is climate, and in this era of climate change where storms get stronger than usual, the variables multiply.
Another are the diseconomies of scale in farms that have been partitioned to small plots due to agrarian reform.
The application of suitable technology, mechanization, even management skills become difficult due to lack of scale and capital.
Well-functioning cooperatives need to be organized and assisted, but the general experience, particularly in far-flung areas, has been dismal.
An unintended consequence of the devolution of responsibility over agriculture and other concerns brought about by the Local Government Code has had patchwork effects.
With agricultural extension work by trained national government experts now largely a function of the LGU, technical assistance depends on the mayor or governor’s priorities.
Some place unqualified political favorites as provincial or city agricultural officers.
Some others would rather spend their IRA on gaudy holiday decorations and tasteless beautification projects.
To be fair, there are quite a number of exceptional LGU officials who have put a premium on assisting their farmers and agri-business constituents to maximize income and productivity.
Harnessing LGUs is in fact a major key to agricultural production and enhancing food security.
With logistics a costly enterprise in our archipelago, DA should seriously match production with, as much as feasible, local markets.
The anomaly of produce always being brought to NCR and then re-sent to other parts can be transformed into a more systematic flow from farm to market.
And then, too, the department should make full use of the research output and technological developments from our agricultural science community, whether through UP Los Banos, PCARRD under DOST, the Food Development Institute, and other agencies.
Apart from these, there are a lot of technological innovations from Japan, Taiwan, China, and elsewhere which could be tapped and adapted to the Philippine situation.
It is good the president and his undersecretaries in the DA, along with Congress, are finally (and hopefully) serious about investing in modern cold chain and post-harvest facilities that would allow farmers to time their marketing and prevent spoilage.
The recent onion fiasco, though unprecedentedly ridiculous, has at last awakened policy-makers on the need for these.
DA is also over-stretched with a multiplicity of functions.
If memory serves me right, there are more than 40 agencies and GOCCs under its control and policy supervision.
And while undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, along with hundreds of regional directors ought to be well-equipped to handle their areas of responsibility, political appointees who bring little to the table, and oftentimes have a predilection for corruption, have created a hugely demoralized institution.
Career officials are more often than not under-utilized, their long experience and technical expertise wasted.
Worse, many have been sacrificial lambs when corrupt schemes are discovered, even if they were just following orders from above, the latter getting away with it.
Often mentioned as problems, especially when shortages and price spirals occur, are the value chain middlemen, derided as cartels.
The present approach of cutting off the middleman is an exercise in futility.
Kadiwa, no matter how well-intentioned, can only skim the market surface, and its viability well nigh impossible with bureaucratic and audit procedures.
Good management should know how to deal with the middlemen, which are, like it or not, an important cog in the value chain without whom there would be dysfunctions in the market.
Then there is the seemingly unabatable smuggling of agricultural products. DA and its agency officials and employees are not allowed inside BOC territory.
There was a time when a private-public partnership in monitoring the flow of agricultural imports was in place. As far as I know, that has been scuttled.
Maybe pre-inspection services could be resumed, using highly credible inspectors such as SGS, Bureau Veritas, Omni, etc. The expense may be well worth it.
Finally, although there are other problems in agriculture that I may not in this article recall, Congress and the President should consider creating a Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
The DA, which handles soil-based plants, plus poultry and livestock, should be spared from the quite distinct problems hounding our fisheries sector, including the high cost of fish, a puzzle considering that we are surrounded by water.
The late Camarines Sur political giant, Luis Villafuerte Sr., who was tasked also to craft a government reorganization and right-sizing plan by former President Cory Aquino, included this proposal as early as 1987.
He kept filing the same legislation in several Congresses, but like the National Land Use Act, nothing has happened.
Our food security situation is a race against time.
The average farmer is in his mid-fifties, just a few years away from weary retirement, his next generation unwilling to farm and would rather work in the urban centers, or abroad.
It is an existential problem for our people, and we can only wish our president well as he chooses who to entrust a most difficult job to.