AGRICULTURE SECRETARY WILLIAM DAR
Photography by Romeo Peralta Jr.
Agriculture Secretary William Dar believes that the agricultural sector remains the strongest driving force of the Philippine economy, proving to be resilient and robust amid crisis.
For the agriculture industry, a lot came into focus during the COVID-19 crisis. Months of lockdown revealed two pressing issues: food security and farmer-consumer relationship. While these were already present prior to the global health crisis, the pandemic magnified the problem
As we experienced, the government had difficulty implementing the lockdown. While there was enough food supply, according to Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar, several logistical problems arose when people started panicbuying basic goods.
GROWTH OF THE GREEN SECTOR
Logistically, the first weeks of lockdown were a nightmare. Trucks coming from outside of Metro Manila had to go through numerous checkpoints. While all sorts of travel passes were issued by local governments to facilitate an unhindered supply flow, clashing orders from different levels of government made the situation chaotic.
Eventually, these problems were ironed out. In the succeeding months, public and private sector solutions emerged to address food supply without compromising health and safety measures. LGUs launched mobile palengkes, supermarkets introduced their online platforms, existing food/ grocery delivery apps widened their product catalogue, and brands partnered with delivery service providers.
The pandemic affected all industries, and very few thrived. The agriculture sector grew by 1.6% in the second quarter of 2020, while many industries reported a drastic drop in productivity. “Despite all these lockdowns and checkpoints, the agriculture industry thrived. This shows that [agriculture] is a resilient sector,” says Dar. “The same positive growth of 1.2% of the agriculture sector during the third week of 2020.”
The Agriculture Secretary requested a P66-billion agriculture stimulus package during the virtual meeting of the House Committee on Agriculture and Food. This stimulus plan aims to cover P31 billion for Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Kontra sa COVID-19, or more popularly known as the “Plant, Plant, Plant” initiative. The program includes expansion of farm areas, rice resiliency projects, a palay procurement fund for National Food Authority (NFA), an expanded SURE Aid and recovery program, social amelioration for farmers, an integrated livestock and corn resiliency project, a revitalized gulayan project and urban agriculture, a coconut-based diversification project, and a fishery resiliency project. Another P20 billion is set to fund food logistics, food markets, and other interventions, while the remaining P15 billion will fund the cash-for-work program in the agriculture sector.
“I’m trying to characterize our socio-economic recovery and resiliency. Presently, we are in the survival stage. While we are here, how do we reboot Philippine agriculture? That’s why we are proposing the P66 billion stimulus package, on top of the regular budget,” the Secretary explains.
However, the bigger picture beyond the pandemic illustrates another pressing crisis— environmental sustainability and climate change. According to World Development Indicators by the World Bank, 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture. By 2050, a 50% increase in food production will be necessary to feed the projected nine billion global population. This will necessitate a 15% increase in water usage.
For Secretary Dar, it is all a balancing act—managing increasing productivity sustainably while building resilience against the impacts of climate change. Dar stresses the importance of working within the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2) adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015.
The SDG2 is the goal to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” This recognizes “the inter-linkages among supporting sustainable agriculture, empowering small farmers, promoting gender equality, ending rural poverty, ensuring healthy lifestyles, tackling climate change, and other issues addressed within the set of 17 [SDGs] in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.”
FUTURE OF FOOD
Let’s say we succeed in addressing the water consumption problem while balancing the food production against the growing population—is our food still secure then? Dar brings up another concern, “Who will feed the country when the aging farmers of today are averaging 60 years old?” This is according to the 2017 survey conducted by the DA.
Dar says the reason why the younger generation seems disinterested in farming is because they have yet to realize the full income-generating potential in agri-business. “That’s the enticement. Agribusiness is the way forward.”
To encourage more young people to enter the industry, the Department has established incentive systems: mentoring programs, business incubation initiatives, interest-free loans, and more. In January 2020, the DA launched Kapital Access for Young Agripreneurs (KAYA), a loan program under the management of the DA-Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC).
KAYA is open for those aged 18 to 30 years old. Applicants can borrow up to P500,000, payable in five years, with zero interest, and no collateral required. Interested individuals should present a business plan. Mentors will coach participants in achieving their business goals.
Another is the AgriNegosyo Program (ANYO), available for those with existing agri-businesses. Those who apply can borrow from P300,000 up to P15 million, also payable in five years, interest-free, with no collateral necessary. The project requirements will determine the loan amount. Both KAYA and ANYO were given a P1 billion fund each by the DA.
The Mentoring and Attracting Youth in Agriculture (MAYA) Program is another initiative that gives fresh graduates a chance to participate in On-the-Job Trainings (OJT) for the Department’s projects nationwide. A P100-million budget has been allotted for this project, since participants are given a competitive allowance during the six-month program.
“Afterwards, they have two choices: join the Department as part of the cadre of human capital, or go into agribusiness and we will give them loan support,” Dar explains. If they start their own business, the DA will provide a financial loan of up to P500,000, payable in five years with zero interest.
DA’s “Plant, Plant, Plant” program is promoting urban agriculture to develop a sustainable food supply especially during the pandemic. Aside from making loans available, the Department distributed free seeds to interested individuals and LGUs nationwide. As of June 2020, the DA served 721,169 individuals/households out of the 966,956 targeted households. They also partnered with 19 provinces, 243 municipalities and cities, and 13 communities, barangays, and schools.
For the former Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) Executive Director, the way forward is Research for Development (R4D), empowering LGUs for agriculture and agribusiness.
“There are definitely no shortcuts to making the country’s agricultural sector modern and industrialized, and we should not waste time to achieve that as poverty remains entrenched in rural areas,” Dar wrote in the introduction of his 2019 book, The Way Forward: Level Up Philippine Agriculture.
In the book, Dar cites the country’s GERD (Gross Expenditure for Research and Development) in 2013, which was only 0.14% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). However, he also notes that the agriculture sector is getting the bulk of Research and Development (R&D) funding. But more than funds, another setback when it comes to R&D is our country’s researcher/ scientist ratio per million people. UNESCO recommends that there should be 380 researchers or scientists per million population. The Philippines currently has 189 per million, which means that at least 19,000 more are needed to keep up with global standards.
Dar recommends putting investments and funds in R&D, while also keeping in mind that “R&D and its extensions should have impact as the end game, with capacity development as the legacy. In short, research should lead to productivity gain (391,982 MT, P8.65 billion), fresh mango (13,562 MT, P990.942 million), centrifugal sugar (62,541 MT, P1.63 billion), and Virginia tobacco (7,468 MT, P1.37 billion). Dar enumerated the steps to make a unified ARD in the Philippines. It should be demand driven and addresses the need to increase crop production; it is value-adding and helps create more agri-based micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs); builds stronger linkages between various R&D institutions (including state colleges and universities); will lead to a unified but decentralized system to transfer and commercialize R&D outputs (especially to smallholders); and generate more funding for ARD. Further, he also recommended institutionalizing R&D for major crops; looking at the long-term view in ARD; considering issues like climate change, population explosion, and degradation of water and land resources; and tapping into the potential of precision agriculture. There is much to be done, says Dar. But he insists that the investment is worth it, citing a and poverty reduction.” In line with this thought, Dar says R&D should be changed to “Research for Development (R4D),” stressing that research efforts should be impactful and relevant.
He emphasized this during his time as the Director-General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 2000 to 2014. The R4D paradigm refocused the institute’s efforts towards a mission to “reduce poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and environmental degradation in the dryland tropics.” Their motto, put in place in 2000, is “Science with a Human Face.”
One hopeful result of fixing the country’s Agriculture Research and Development (ARD) system is changing the Philippines’ status from a net food importer, importing USD$13.5 billion agrifood products in 2018, to an export powerhouse.
According to the PSA Agricultural Indicators System Report 2019, the biggest exports included the following produce: fresh banana (3.13 million MT, P72.78 billion), fresh pineapple (391,982 MT, P8.65 billion), fresh mango (13,562 MT, P990.942 million), centrifugal sugar (62,541 MT, P1.63 billion), and Virginia tobacco (7,468 MT, P1.37 billion).
Dar enumerated the steps to make a unified ARD in the Philippines. It should be demanddriven and addresses the need to increase crop production; it is value-adding and helps create more agri-based micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs); builds stronger linkages between various R&D institutions (including state colleges and universities); will lead to a unified but decentralized system to transfer and commercialize R&D outputs (especially to smallholders); and generate more funding for ARD.
Further, he also recommended institutionalizing R&D for major crops; looking at the long-term view in ARD; considering issues like climate change, population explosion, and degradation of water and land resources; and tapping into the potential of precision agriculture.
There is much to be done, says Dar. But he insists that the investment is worth it, citing a finding of the International Food Policy Research Institute that the social return for research can reach up to 48%.
He believes this can result in a “substantial reduction in poverty.” For Dar, it is the ultimate paradox of Philippine agriculture, which drives him to push for people-centric innovations. “Most smallholder farmers and fishers still live in poverty and can not afford enough food for themselves and their family,” he points.
As someone whose parents were both farmers who grew up in the farmlands, Dar knows first-hand how difficult it is to be a farmer in the Philippines. This became his motivation when his uncle sent him to college to study BS Agricultural Education (1969) and MS Agronomy (1976) at the Mountain State Agricultural College (now known as Benguet State University).
His second point is empowering Local Government Units (LGUs) for agriculture. Dar notes the “silent debate” around whether or not the devolution of the delivery of agriculture extension services to LGUs under RA 7160 (Local Government Act of 1991) was the right thing to do. For Dar, it was and is the correct decision.
“There are actually more advantages in letting LGUs take the frontlines in delivering or even co-delivering agriculture extension services to farmers and fisherfolk. Local governments have a better understanding of the social and economic conditions of localities, and are more familiar with the various local and grassroots organizations they can partner with in uplifting the lives of smallholder farmers and fisherfolk, and even women and the youth,” Dar said in his book.
Dar stresses, however, that while LGUs have dropped the ball when it comes to delivering effective agricultural extension services (since RA 7160 was enacted in 1991), the blame should not be put solely on them.
He notes that the extension system remains flawed. Smallholders are hardly involved in R&D, which results in output with little to no real-world application, and LGUs were never prepared to take on the devolved functions when it comes to agriculture extension. He likens the LGUs to soldiers who were given guns, but were hardly trained and subsequently forced to go into war.
Lastly, Dar wants the focus to be on agri-business or agripreneurship. For enhanced agripreneurship, he enumerated the “six Ms,” which stand for Mindset, Mentoring, Money, Market, Mastery, and Machine. Mindset can be developed through training and formal education, while Mentoring can be done through business incubation and coaching programs. Both of these can be found in current programs of the DA mentioned earlier.
As for Money, Dar wishes to focus on financial literacy, loans, and micro-franchising. In the Agri-Tayo webinar, he mentioned helping farmers through increasing trade posts and eliminating the middlemen so that farmers are able to directly bring their produce to the consumers. Dar explains that the current system ends in farmers and fishermen being held by the neck by middlemen who provide loans and who eventually, come harvest season, dictate prices.
“[Eliminating the middlemen] will be a big help to the farmers and consuming public. They haggle and offer low prices to farmers, then increase the price exorbitantly for consumers,” Dar explains, personally ensuring that the DA program of “Kadiwa ni Ani at Kita” will succeed in helping both farmers and consumers. “We can help farmers by offering affordable credit and link them to the market. Collectivize them so that they have leveraging power.”
For Market, he emphasizes the need for stronger market linkages in the supply chains, both local and export markets. He also notes creating value-adding agri-produce, ascertaining the market before starting an agricultural enterprise, and e-commerce opportunities. While for Mastery and Machines, aspiring entrepreneurs must be taught the basics in agripreneurship centers (which can be established by government agencies and state colleges and universities) and leveling up their production through technology.
Seems simple, but his master plan is the result of decades of experience. In 1987, Dar was named the first director of the Bureau of Agricultural Research under the reorganized DA. He also served as the DA Acting Secretary (1998-1999) and ICRISAT Director-General (2000 to 2014). It is no wonder that Dar has received a number of awards for his contributions to the Agriculture Industry: Pamana ng Pilipino Award (2014) and The Outstanding Filipino (TOFIL) in 2016.
IN NEED OF BIGGER BUDGET
All of these plans will not be realized if the budget allotted is not inadequate. Dar laments the lack of budget of the agriculture sector in the Philippines and argues that the sector has been long neglected for the last four decades.
“If you want to catch up again, you have to significantly increase the budget coming from the government. But, at the same time, you have to nurture the investment environment so that the private sector will want to come in and invest heavily,” Dar says.
He cites the contribution of the agricultural sector to the economy: agriculture contributes 9%, while agri-business contributes 25%. Dar is confident that given more resources and funds, the total contribution of the sector will be much more than its current 34%.
The DA has been pushing for a rather ambitious but necessary budget of P280 billion for 2021— which is four times its current budget—to “reboot and reform Philippine agriculture.”
And yet despite the positive performance of the agriculture sector during the pandemic, the DA is poised to receive only a meager P67 billion budget for 2021. But Dar shares with LEAGUE that the DA is hoping to receive at least P128 billion, as budget deliberations are still ongoing. While many sectors are vying for a bigger chunk of next year’s national budget, any argument for the DA’s budget increase can easily be justified in five words, says Dar: “We are an agricultural country.”