(The Issue 287 Cover of our very own Greenfields Magazine features William Dar, Department of Agriculture Secretary)
Agriculture Secretary William Dar, the "food czar," saw the writing on the wall after the government declared a series of quarantines and lockdowns in many parts of the Philippines since mid-March that the issue of food security had to be addressed immediately.
If that issue was not addressed, social unrest could ensue that would make it harder for the government to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).
But President Rodrigo Duterte had little to worry when it came to making the Philippines food secure amid the Covid-19 pandemic — the reason is simple: Dar, even before the pandemic, was already the country’s “Food Czar” and “Servant-Leader for Agriculture.”
So, Dar immediately rolled up his sleeves and unveiled the Plant, Plant, Plant Program (PPP), also known as the Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Laban sa Covid-19 program. The PPP got an initial funding of P8 billion to fund its Rice Resiliency Project (RRP) to give rice farmers free fertilizers to boost their production.
For 2021, the Department of Agriculture (DA) will get P17 billion for its stimulus program to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the agriculture sector. Also, the DA will continue to support the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pagasa Program.
“The DA will be actively involved in the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pagasa Program. We are also aligning the department to the program for 2021,” Dar added.
Known for his impeccable work ethic, Dar from the onset of the quarantines and lockdowns became more active on the field to get a first-hand account on the movement of food products, and engage more stakeholders and actors in the agriculture sector to be part of the collective action to secure the country’s food needs.
And with the agriculture sector registering a 1.6-percent growth in the second quarter amid the 16.5-percent contraction in the country’s gross domestic product, it was very clear Dar delivered.
“We are indeed pleased that the country’s agrifishery sector performed well, despite the halt in major economic activities resulting from the enhanced community quarantine in Metro Manila, Luzon and other parts of the country,” he said.
Besides the varying degrees of quarantines and lockdowns imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the agriculture sector had to contend with other challenges like the outbreak of the African swine fever that happened barely weeks after Dar was appointed Agriculture secretary in August 2019; drop in palay (unmilled rice) prices; and the unexpected infestation of the fall army work not only in the Philippines but also in parts of Southeast Asia, among others.
Dar also gave tribute to Filipino farmers and fishers, whose dedication to growing food for the country’s growing population sometimes escapes the eyes of the public, especially those residing in the urban areas.
“This is a testament to the resiliency and dedication of our farmers and fishers to contribute to the economic recovery effort, amid the challenges and health risks that we are facing in the agriculture sector,” he added.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd, a former Agriculture secretary who Dar said is his mentor, had said that agriculture along with government’s infrastructure program, particularly the Build, Build, Build Program, will be among the main growth drivers of the Philippine economy this year.
“Agriculture is big because, you know, the demand for food is inelastic,” Dominguez said.
And Dar delivered.
The Agriculture secretary also said the country has enough rice for at least 53 days as of August. That supply level is also expected to increase as the wet season palay planting will start in September.
“Barring adverse typhoons and natural disasters in the remaining months of the year, we expect a record palay output this year of 20.34 million MT, which is 8 percent higher than the 2019 production,” Dar said.
“All scenarios show comfortable levels of rice supply by the end of the year, which at best would be good for 98 days. And at worst, we would still have an ending stock good for 90 days,” he added.
There is little debate Dar is right on track in leading the DA and getting the cooperation of stakeholders and actors in agriculture to make the country truly food secure.
Moving forward, Dar has outlined the DA’s major strategies to level up the country’s agriculture sector while addressing food security amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Continue modernization of agriculture by providing modern and appropriate technologies to enhance productivity and competitiveness of farmers and fishers;
- Cluster and consolidate small holder farmers and fishers to attain more efficient production, processing and marketing activities;
- Enjoin the private sector to invest in agriculture through industrialization and establishment of agri-aqua industrial business corridors;
- Apply systematic approaches in the development and promotion of agricultural products for export;
- Reinforce programs on infrastructure development to establish quality and cost efficient infrastructure support such as farm-to market roads, post-harvest facilities, processing and marketing facilities, and improved food markets and food logistics;
- Promote higher budget and more investments in the agriculture sector following the support and advocacy of President Duterte;
- Strengthen partnership with Congress to promote and institutionalize needed support for the sector; and
- Continue roadmap development especially for banner program commodities with the help of the private sector and agri-fishery stakeholders to also set clear plans and strategic implementation of projects.
Clearly, Dar is also looking to secure the country’s food needs and level up the country’s agriculture sector beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
Only a real Food Czar has that foresight.
Read more at Greenfields Magazine