POLICY makers, academics, media personnel, leaders of civil society and people's organizations, and social media policy kibitzers often ask why despite our relatively abundant natural resources and excellent institutions in higher learning for agriculture, our agriculture sector lags behind that of our Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors. In particular, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and now Vietnam's agriculture has surpassed the productivity performance of our agricultural sector. As a result, their agricultural products are competitively priced, they export a variety of agricultural commodities and their farmers and fishers are economically better off than ours.

Having been immersed in the literature on the subject for more than three decades, previously as a professor at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB) and later as a researcher cum consultant of a number of international organizations delving into agricultural development, I can easily identify a number of reasons (not in the order of causation) to this so-called conundrum.

Inadequate budgetary support

First, we have only paid lip service to the cause of agricultural development. We have never provided sustained government investments to the growth of the sector. From 2000 to 2021, the percentage share of the Department of Agriculture's (DA) budget to the total national appropriations only averaged at 4.05 percent. It actually drastically went down from 3.7 percent in 2019 to 1.5 percent in 2020 and 1.6 percent in 2021. In contrast, our agricultural sector's average contribution to the country's gross domestic product (GDP) during the 22-year period is around 10 percent.

In comparison, the budget of Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for their agricultural sector as a percentage of their national appropriation is 6.5 percent, 3.6 percent, 3.4 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, in 2020. Ours is a measly 1.5 percent of the national budget!

Rice-centric budget

Small as it is, our agricultural budget is too rice-centric. More than 70 percent of the budget allocated for agriculture (which will include the sum given to the National Irrigation Administration whose services are mainly geared toward providing water to rice farmers) is devoted to rice productivity-enhancing support services. There is almost nothing left to other agricultural commodities where we enjoy a comparative advantage. For instance, the budget for the national corn program is only around P1.5 billion annually. Similarly, the budget for high-value crops (various vegetables, cacao, coffee, etc.) is only around P1.4 billion per year. The budget for the fisheries sector averages around P5 billion whereas our fishery area is 20 times bigger than our land area. And the budget for coconut averages at P1.4 billion annually even as the crop is planted to around 3.4 million hectares of our cultivable land.

We should be reminded of two cardinal rules in economics in the way we allocate our scarce budgetary resources. One is that growth is a function of investment. If there is none or insufficient investment, a sector is unlikely to grow or will have difficulty in growing. And two is that if we want to attain high and sustained growth, we should invest in activities/crops where we have a comparative advantage. Business commonsense dictates that this should be the guiding principle to surviving and growing in a competitive market environment.

Quality of leadership

Third, our selection of the leadership of the DA is not primarily based on the technical competence of the candidate but mainly on his political connection. Agriculture, to be properly nurtured, should be science-based. There are politically influential people who think that if they planted rice or corn in three to five hectares, previously maintained a trading hub ("bagsakan"), hailed from a rice-growing area, etc., they are already qualified to manage the department and the entire agricultural sector. They do not realize that the job requires knowledge of various agricultural commodities, international trade, tariffs on agricultural products (i.e., macroeconomics), global supply and demand of key agricultural products, plant and animal pests and diseases, supply and value chains of the various products, among others, to fully comprehend the multitude of challenges facing the sector. To appoint a nonagricultural technocrat to the DA is like appointing an architect to run our Department of Health.

It is for this reason countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia appoint agricultural technocrats to be at the helm of their Ministry of Agriculture. More importantly, those highly qualified agricultural technocrats remain in office for a decade or so in order to ensure sustained implementation of their agricultural development thrusts and projects. The simple explanation for this is that the positive results of these projects will only manifest after the passage of more than five years or so given that some agricultural crops are long-gestating (e.g., rubber, mangoes, coconut, palm oil, etc.). Such longevity in office is possible because their national leadership (like the previous King in Thailand and Prime Minister Mahathir in Malaysia) recognized that sustained attention and support to the agriculture sector are indispensable to growth.

Setting targets at the local level

Fourth, particularly in Vietnam, both national and particularly local officials managing the agricultural sector are held accountable through regular performance audits based on the targets set by the national leadership. If they do not perform or do not meet their targets, they are replaced, particularly the local officials who are directly responsible for managing agricultural projects meant to increase farm productivity.

This necessitates the establishment of a robust monitoring and evaluation system, which can clearly determine whether targets are being met or not. The system operates in the similar fashion big corporations operate, which assigns targets to their branch managers. If those targets were not attained, the head of that branch will either be frozen or replaced.

Finally, the agricultural sector of our Asean neighbors was gradually exposed to global competition. Quantitative restrictions were lifted and tariffs on agricultural products were reduced within a certain time frame after their membership to the World Trade Organization. This compelled their government to install productivity-enhancing measures focusing particularly on the provision of public goods such as farm-to-market roads, irrigation and postharvest facilities, and investments in research and development. The benefits of these goods last for some time and can be enjoyed by the vast majority of their farmers and fishers. In contrast, the Philippines emphasized the provision of production support subsidies (i.e., fertilizer, seeds, crop insurance, etc.) whose benefits are temporarily enjoyed during the cropping season. Politicians favored such assistance because they are actually "dole outs" to aid their reelection bid.

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