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Secretary Tiu Laurel, agriculture’s man to watch with vigilance

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“If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right.” – M.S. Swaminathan

Barely a year has passed since Francisco Tiu Laurel was sworn into office as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. It may be unfair to assess him in his 7 month tenure, since he was appointed in November last year, rather, it is more important to look at his vision for Philippine agriculture, and whether this is an improvement of the President’s agriculture plan. Tiu Laurel’s department accordingly is built around a “dream team” under his helm, where he has 26 undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. This tells us that Secretary Laurel is bent on modernizing Philippine agriculture while ensuring farmers sustainability and the Filipinos’ food security.

BACKGROUND

Many opined that his appointment, albeit belated, marked a significant and bold step in addressing many challenges in Philippine agriculture. His family runs a fishing business long established by his parents which includes deep-sea fishing, canning, meat and seafood processing. They are also into ship building and power generation. At one point, he was the president of the Confederation of the Philippine Tuna Industry and held various positions in the fishing industry. Secretary Laurel once served as the President of the Agusan Power Corporation. Ethically, he divested all his investments in all of his family businesses to avoid conflicts of interest, manifesting solid commitment in transforming the sector.

In short, it can be said he is the right person for the job to hurdle the challenges of Philippine agriculture and his background is the fulfillment of BBM’s commitment to ensure agricultural development. As expected, this raises a lot of expectations from him and his “dream team.”

BRAND OF VISION

Upon assumption to office Secretary Tiu Laurel launched an eight-point agenda, primarily to enhance and improve farming and fisheries practices in the Philippines. The agenda looks ambitious, which to me must be his pursuit. Who would care if his plans were ambitious so long as these are time bound and realistic. According to him this is to increase production by way of expanding and enhancing available agriculture and fishery areas.

These are the mechanization and modernization of production systems plus technological upgrades. Development of post-harvest systems and infrastructure which means improvement of the post-harvest processes vital to minimizing wastages and losses. This would result in efficient crop and fishery product handlings. Streamlining of transportation systems and distribution processes that will help minimize losses and improve efficiency and enhance market access, which means expanding market reach vital for farmers that would generate income for them, including the fishermen.

The Secretary’s agenda also included updated digitalization, and balancing development and regulation. The former will have real-time data primarily supporting decision-making and effective management and the latter would strike a balance between sustainable agricultural development while adhering to regulations governing agricultural matters. Finally, he emphasized the active participation of farmers, fisherfolk and the private sector which are pivotal in the country’s agriculture program.

This is a vision to modernize Philippine agriculture, benefiting the entire value chain, emphasizing to end decades of inequity that have left many farmers and fisherfolk in poverty. This includes expanding production areas, improving post-harvest facilities, and digitizing operations, coupled with legislative reforms which are under work to address challenges besetting the sector. A heartening way to see such comprehensive efforts to transform agriculture and ensure food security in the Philippines.

VISION OR RHETORIC?

Every cabinet secretary serves at the pleasure of the President. Expectedly, Tiu Laurel carries out marching orders from the President guided by his agriculture program that forms part of the country’s development program. His ambitious plans regardless of their intent and positive impacts must have the go-signal of the boss. But wait, for others these plans do not seem to penetrate down the line, except for some, when necessitated, such as the recent El Niño and subsidies of buying rice for the benefit of the consumers and the farmers. The caveat, however, is that, until when rice buying subsidies can last and how prepared are the sector’s managers that the call for rice tariff reduction to offset rice shortage, that might possibly hurt Philippine farmers sooner or later.

For the skeptics, Secretary Tiu Laurel’s plans for agriculture do not sound ambitious and realistic. Rather, it is quite a “rehash” and a rhetoric exceptionally written paper and spoken so eloquently but never implemented seriously. With the way things are going in agriculture including forestry and fishery sectors I can be a skeptic, too.*

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