• The ‘perfect storm’ and Duterte’s SONA pronouncements

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    DR. WILLIAM DAR

    RAINS and storms have become more common the past days and weeks, and this made me contemplate on the “perfect storm” the Philippines is facing when it comes to environment and food production.

    The perfect storm I am referring to is the combination of climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, population explosion, energy crisis and food crisis. Some of those factors can cause one or more of the factors mentioned; nonetheless, nobody in his or her right mind would like the Philippines to be badly affected by the perfect storm. A shortage of food production or stocks is also a country’s worst nightmare.

    Fortunately, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte in his 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA) clearly showed he was aware and sensitive on the issues relating to the environment and food production, which I find to be highly admirable.

    In his 2017 SONA, President Duterte made three policy pronouncements relating to the environment and food production: Mindanao is getting affected by the impact of climate change; food production and environmental sustainability are priorities over mining; and raw materials that are mined from the Philippines should also be processed locally.

    On Mindanao, President Duterte said the region was already experiencing warmer climate and he wanted all agencies involved in food production to address the issue the soonest. He also appealed to Congress to immediately pass the National Land Use Act (NLUA) to ensure the rational and sustainable use of the country’s land and physical resources, especially now that there was competition for land for food production and non-farm uses. The NLUA will also help promote environmental conservation in the Philippines.

    Before I became agriculture secretary during the Estrada administration, there were attempts to pass in Congress a measure to govern land use in the Philippines but none made it to the President for signing into a law. But now that the country faces a perfect storm, the need to have a law on land use is getting more urgent, and we do not want to see the day when we will have a shortage of land to grow our food.

    President Duterte’s call in his 2017 SONA to prioritize food production and environmental sustainability over mining is one of the most powerful policy pronouncements I have heard from a Philippine President in many years, and it is a very timely one!

    Let me quote the part of his 2017 SONA on the matter: “I sternly warn…I am warning all mining operations and contractors to refrain from the unbridled and irresponsible destruction of our watersheds, forests and aquatic resources. You have gained much from mining, we only get about P70 billion a year, but you have consistently neglected your responsibility to protect and preserve [the environment]– even the tax, it’s about 5.0 percent – environment for posterity.”

    It is high time the President warns mining companies destroying the country’s watersheds and resources, and forests, because the Philippine agriculture sector is adversely affected by lack of water during the dry season, and flooding during the rainy season. We can blame our dwindling forest cover for those! Also, uncaring mining firms have polluted a few water ways in the country that can no longer supply freshwater for farming and domestic use.

    But President Duterte is not closing the country’s doors to mining because he urged in his 2017 SONA that the Philippines would host industries that would process mined raw materials. This is actually challenging mining companies to set up by themselves or through joint ventures value-adding for the minerals they extract from our land.

    The framework to establish industries to process mineral ore can be established along the lines of agro-industrialization, or for example, cooperatives operated by smallholders getting involved in the value-chain. With this framework, there will be a more equitable sharing of fruits from the mining industry in general.

    Also, the processing facilities that will be established in the country should be modern or of the latest technology, so their output can meet the standards of the export market.

    In short, I am also for sustainable mining where the fruits are shared more equitably with the community and smallholders.

    Yet my greatest worry from the perfect storm is its impact on agriculture, because as I stated earlier, a food shortage is a country’s worst nightmare.

    Climate change is still the biggest factor affecting agriculture, because it increases water scarcity and frequency of droughts. Crops also exhibit accelerated physiological development that hastens maturation and reduces yields. Increase in night time respiration may also decrease crop yields.

    So what must be done?

    In my past columns, I discussed measures to mitigate the impact of climate change on agriculture, which also addressed other issues like land degradation and a possible food crisis. For this column, I will outline policy directions and programs to address the impact of climate change, which are based on my experience when I headed the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 2000 to 2014.

    First, more funds for research and development (R&D) should be allocated to develop and achieve climate-resilient agriculture. This will entail institutionalizing, unifying, consolidating and strengthening R&D efforts on climate resilient agriculture, and undertaking proactive and holistic approaches to respond to other global contemporary challenges like poverty and food insecurity.

    The result of R&D are scientific solutions which, in turn, should be made farmer-centric or for the benefit of smallholder farmers. This means scientific outputs from R&D should result in efficient water management systems, better land use practices, integrated pest and management, and development of climate-resilient and improved cultivars and breeds.

    This also means farmers should be given access to knowledge and technologies from scientific research, and empowering stakeholders through capacity building and collective action.

    Second, there is a need to consolidate and analyze various climactic and crop production models, so strategic research can be undertaken to help predict how farming systems can cope with current climatic changes, and to adapt to future weather distortions. The aim of this policy is to help improve and stabilize farm yields.

    Last but not least, and perhaps the most important, is to link farmers to the markets through institutions, private-public partnerships, and giving them access to credit and crop insurance.

    Those policy directions and programs dovetail with the policy pronouncements President Duterte made in his 2017 SONA for the environment and agriculture, and I believe that the agencies concerned should not waste time coming up with the appropriate policies and programs to deal with the perfect storm before it is too late.

     

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