New DA chief asked to ‘reverse pro-import bias’ at agency
Industry stakeholders expressed hope that the newly appointed head of the Department of Agriculture (DA), business tycoon Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr., would veer away from the longtime bane of local food producers: mass importation.
Various groups representing farmers, fisherfolk and agribusiness entrepreneurs and traders on Friday gave their respective wish lists for Laurel as he took over a crucial economic post held for a year and four months by President Marcos.
They all shared the view that the sector should finally see the long-promised reforms to bring down the cost of farm inputs, improve facilities and infrastructure, and secure an environment where small-time farmers and fishermen can thrive and compete.
For starters, Laurel “could work on reversing the pro-import bias of some DA officials and the economic managers,” according to an official of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF).
Rooted in reality
“He will also have to invest in an honest-to-goodness data and information system,” said FFF national manager Raul Montemayor.
The new agriculture secretary should “listen closely and act promptly” on the concerns of “small farmers, municipal fishers and other disadvantaged members” of the sector.
Elias Jose Inciong, president of the United Broiler Raisers Association, noted how the country’s economic managers had “cherry-picked provisions (of trade laws and treaty commitments) to suit their dogma of import liberalization.”
“We hope that he will have directions based on reality, i.e. the experiences of farmers and fisherfolk, and not on the false narrative of economists that the sector is protected,” Inciong said.
Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) said it would wait for the new DA chief’s position concerning calls to reject all proposals to reduce tariffs on imported agricultural commodities.
“We hope that he’ll live up to the expectations and directive(s) of the President (PBBM) in supporting local production, boosting the local agri industries; and that importation is only last resort and not the principal policy,” Sinag executive director Jayson Cainglet said.
Pork Producers Federation of the Philippines Inc. (ProPork) said that given the challenges faced by the sector, Laurel can foster stronger collaboration with local producers and show a “firm commitment” to scrap the implementation of reduced tariff rates.
ProPork president Rolando Tambago said the new DA leadership should have a “strong political will to implement harmonized policies (in the national and local government levels) that favor local producers.”
According to United Sugar Producers Federation (Unifed) president Manuel Lamata, the group is ready to present to Laurel the real state of the sugarcane industry and “how the department can extend its assistance and resources to” sugar farmers.
Show of confidence
Expressing confidence in the new Cabinet official, Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. president Felix Tiukinhoy Jr. said an agribusiness leader like Laurel should be “able to manage the agriculture portfolio efficiently and well.”
“We welcome his appointment. He is very competent and familiar with realities and challenges of production postharvest and marketing,” added Asis Peres, convener of Tugon Kabuhayan.
Meat Importers and Traders Association president emeritus Jesus Cham said the new DA chief “brings with him a wealth of experience and understanding covering livestock and fisheries sector.”
Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc. (Pcafi) president Danilo Fausto said the group had been “ expecting his appointment for more than a week now.”
“We had [a] preliminary meeting with him two weeks ago and we had expressed our full support and cooperation for the benefit of our agriculture stakeholders,” Fausto added.
‘Many vested interests’
The country’s largest business organization, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), also welcomed Laurel’s appointment.
PCCI president George Barcelon said Mr. Marcos made the right decision in tapping Laurel, “a very successful businessman” with both local and international experience that would be “helpful” in his new job.
“Another important thing is that a secretary has been selected (to succeed the President) because there has been a clamor for (it) since the position is too important to not be given 100-percent focus,” he added.
Laurel’s vast business network could give give him an advantage, Barcelon said. “There are many vested interests in the agriculture sector, be it traders or farmers. But the issue of being equitable—like our issues with importation and the supply of sugar—(is something) a businessman with enough acumen will be able to address.”
Given Laurel’s background mainly in the fisheries and food processing business, Barcelon said, the PCCI expects local fisheries to be given the focus it deserves under the new secretary.
PCCI plans to meet with the new DA chief in early December for an initial discussion on the reforms or policy recommendations being pushed by the chamber.
Barcelon cited the proposed amendments to the agrarian reform law, particularly to extend the land retention limit in order to make commercial production more viable, as well as the inclusion of a private sector representative on the board of the Sugar Regulatory Administration.
‘GG’ price as gauge
The fisherfolk group Pamalakaya hoped that President Marcos’ successor in the DA would renounce trade liberalization policies that allow imported fish of “cheap and inferior quality’’ to flood local markets to the disadvantage of local fishermen.
“The fishers are giving a standing order to the new DA secretary to strengthen local food production by renouncing liberalization policies of importation of agricultural and fisheries products,” Pamalakaya national president Fernando Hicap said in a statement.
According to Hicap, the Philippines imported more than 200,000 metric tons of various pelagic fishes from 2018 to 2022, based on Pamakalaya’s monitoring. Most of the imports were from China and Taiwan.
This was an “insult” to the country’s fishing sector, he said, and it continued when the DA approved in August another importation of 35,000 metric tons of fish for the fourth quarter of 2023.
“The DA secretary should know that opening floodgates for imported fishery products (has a) drastic impact on the livelihood of local fisherfolk,” Hicap said.
The farm-gate value of round scad, or “galunggong,” for example, drops from P70 to P80 per kilo to just P50 to P60 per kilo “every time the Philippine government allows the importation of tens of thousands of metric tons” of this variety.
Aside from shunning importation, Laurel may boost the productivity of small fishermen by providing “sufficient” production subsidies and calamity assistance for fishermen, ensuring their safety and freedom of movement in traditional fishing grounds within Philippine waters, and opposing reclamation projects that damage marine resources and undermine the livelihood of coastal communities.
“These are all doable measures to ensure that the country will not fall short on fisheries production and that our country can be food self-sufficient,” Hicap said. “All it takes is political will from the new agriculture chief to stand alongside fisherfolk and farmers for significant and genuine reforms in the agriculture and fisheries.”