Senators to Palace: Choose between Pangilinan and Alcala

MANILA, Philippines – For senators, one head is better than two Cabinet secretaries on agriculture.

Senate President Franklin Drilon raised the alarm on what he called the poor performance of agriculture, linking it with President Benigno Aquino III’s decision to have two secretaries running the sector.

“Our agricultural sector has a dismal performance, notwithstanding the fact that we have two agriculture secretaries: Alcala and Pangilinan,” Drilon said in a budget hearing on Tuesday, August 19.

The Senate chief was referring to Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and former Senator Francis Pangilinan, whom Aquino appointed presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernization in May while keeping Alcala in his post despite corruption allegations

Pangilinan oversees 4 agricultural agencies: the National Irrigation Authority (NIA), the National Food Authority (NFA), the Philippine Coconut Authority and the Food and Pesticide Authority. Alcala controls the rest of the agriculture bureaucracy.

Drilon said the set-up is problematic. He pointed out that agriculture sector grew less than 1% in the first quarter of 2014, as compared to 3.2% in the same quarter last year.

“When you have two heads of a department. I don't know how you can manage well. Just on the legal structure, in the NIA, NFA board, the secretary is the head. Now you have another secretary of agriculture heading the board. You can’t change this because that’s the law. The NFA head is the agriculture secretary,” Drilon added.

A key administration ally, Drilon said the sector needed “a point man.”

Sino ba talaga? Kahit sa budget, magkaiba. They split the agencies into agricultural departments. I strongly suggest that this should be reviewed.” (Who is really in charge? Even in the budget, it’s separate.)

FARMERS, FISHERMEN. Senator Ralph Recto says the DA should have at least the 5th highest budget among line departments. Photo by Alex Nuevaespau00f1a/Senate PRIB

FARMERS, FISHERMEN. Senator Ralph Recto says the DA should have at least the 5th highest budget among line departments.

Photo by Alex Nuevaespau00f1a/Senate PRIB

‘Agri should have higher budget’

Responding to questions from Drilon, Socio-economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said the “respectable” growth in agriculture was 3% to 4%.

The director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said agriculture accounts for one-third of the labor force, and two-thirds of poor Filipinos.

“Agriculture contributes 11% to the economy but it absorbs one-third of the labor force. So productivity is very low. We need employment opportunities outside agriculture.” 

Senator Ralph Recto, former NEDA director general, said there should be a higher budget for agriculture. In the proposed 2015 national budget, the Department of Agriculture (DA) got the 7th highest budget among line departments worth P88.818 billion ($2.03 billion)*.

“Shouldn’t the DA have the 5th highest budget at least? The idea is to increase the productivity of farmers and fishermen,” Recto said.

Balisacan cited factors, like poor infrastructure and a “bad” regulatory environment, to be behind the poor performance of the sector.

“What went wrong is we did not provide opportunities for rapid productivity growth in agriculture,” Balisacan told Recto.

The NEDA chief added that disasters like Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) further reduced growth in agriculture in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Drilon pointed out that from aiming to be a export rice by 2013, the Philippines continues to import rice.

“We are not even importing on time so we can address market shortages on time so prices of rice keep going up,” Drilon said. “The basic issue is law of supply and demand. Do we have enough supply?”

The Senate President said he will pursue the topic when the Senate tackles the DA’s budget.

‘PH budget for R&D one of lowest’

Balisacan said to address the problem, the government has to invest in infrastructure in rural areas, not just in Metro Manila.

He added that the low priority for research and development or R&D must be reversed, not just in the agriculture industry.

The problem with agriculture is it is location-specific, and weather-, soil-, and pest-sensitive. So you need bigger R&D. The budget for R&D in this country is very low, one of the lowest. It's not only for agriculture but other [sectors],” Balisacan said. 

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said that the DA’s budget for R&D is P2.9 billion ($66.42 million), while the Department of Science and Technology’s budget is P3.7 billion ($84.74 million). Abad added that for the other departments, the budget was half a billion more. 

“We are still shaky on investments in R&D and human capital,” Balisacan said.

In a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler, Filipino scientist Michael Purugganan, Dean for Science at New York University, also argued for higher investments in R&D. 

“In the Philippines, we spend less than 0.1% of our GDP on science and technology, and I do not think anyone will question that it is too little. Spending on science and technology is an investment that we, as a society, need to affirm. Yes, there are many needs we have, but we cannot afford not to invest in our scientific infrastructure. To turn our back on science and technology will inevitably condemn our country to perpetual economic backwardness.” – Rappler.com