Using our coconuts

June 27, 2014
(The Philippine Star) June 27, 2014

I am sure that if former Sen. Kiko Pangilinan had his rathers, he would rather not be in that hot seat as P-Noy’s troubleshooter for agriculture. Senator Kiko was just starting to enjoy his life as a budding farmer of sorts when duty called. Suddenly, his leisurely days in his lettuce garden and playing with his pet pig Bacon turned into dreary hours of policy wrestling with conniving bureaucrats and their interest group patrons.

If Senator Kiko’s old idea of public service is being a senator, I am sure his mind has been disabused by now. Senators do nothing much but talk and make pa-pogi. Some enrich themselves through pork and build nice big houses. Almost all of them think they know it all, perhaps even Senator Kiko during his time at the Senate.

Now, however, former Senator Kiko must use his coconut, so to speak, to deal with two national emergencies: rising food prices and a serious malady afflicting our coconut trees. It isn’t only a matter of harnessing his intelligence, or even just his common sense in addressing these problems. He must also gather all his inner reserves of patience, as nothing he can say or do will be considered right by at least one noisy segment of the public.

I have always liked Senator Kiko, because he showed how principled he is early on. As the UP Student Regent, he got himself expelled by his fraternity for voting his conscience rather than a fraternity brother who was the fraternity’s candidate for UP President. I hired him during my watch at the ABS-CBN News room because I found him to be someone who seems to have a genuine desire to serve the public.

Still, he has not really been tested the way he is being tested now. His Senate years had been at best, a blur. But it is almost unfair that he is expected to produce quick results acceptable to all for problems the Agriculture Secretary had over four years to fumble.

But can Senator Kiko deliver? That’s the big question his current test will determine.

The crisis in food prices exists because the old ways of doing things have failed. Yet, it is tragic how our leaders both in government and in so called farmers groups continue to support discredited policies that have simply not worked over the decades. It is plainly stupid to think such failed policies could now deliver a different outcome.

There is hope. I just read a news report saying that the Department of Agriculture is now belatedly thinking of issuing import permits for around 46,000 metric tons of garlic, which will satisfy not quite half of the annual domestic demand of more than 100,000 metric tons. Filipino farmers only produce around 9,000 MT annually, meeting only a 10th of the annual demand. With numbers like that, the present Agriculture Secretary had simply been negligent of his duties with his failure to do anything earlier.

On rice, Bloomberg reports that policy makers will consider a proposal next month to adopt a free market and allow private traders to import as much rice as they want.  Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan told Bloomberg that government would instead collect tariffs on the imports.

Balisacan said the administration is considering a change in standing policy as we battle record-high domestic prices and as we seek to limit losses at NFA. P-Noy is said to be concerned about rising prices and wants to curb inflation running at the fastest pace since November 2011, boosted by the higher cost of rice.

“We need to get our trade policy right to address rising rice prices,” Bloomberg quotes Balisacan. “Our approach in restricting rice imports without an adequate assurance that local rice production would be sufficient to meet demand was the main factor that led to higher prices,” he explained.

Debt at the National Food Authority, which subsidizes farmers by buying their rice at higher prices, will also probably climb to P180 billion ($4.1 billion) by end-2016 without any changes to the program… or twice the nation’s defense budget this year, according to Bloomberg calculations.”

“Moving to a free market allows the government to plug its cash leaks stemming from rice subsidies,” Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist at BDO Unibank Inc. told Bloomberg in Manila. “It also provides more market access for people to buy rice.”

Retail prices of well-milled rice rose 20 percent from a year earlier to a record, as of the second week of June, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Yet, the prices of Thai five-percent broken white rice, an Asian benchmark, have tumbled 26 percent in the past year as the Thai government accelerated sales of stockpiles to make payments to farmers.

If we made timely imports from Thailand and not a belated one from Vietnam, the rise in the local price of rice could have been prevented. The neglect to do so is criminal. It is a shameless Agriculture Secretary who clings to his position in the face of such a failure.

As a result, there is rumbling in our organized labor community for wage increases to take care of higher food costs. “Workers spend up to three-fourths of their wages on food,” complained former Sen Ernesto Herrera, TUCP president and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development.

On the coconut infestation problems, Senator Kiko must now clarify what is going on and how the Philippine Coconut Authority is responding. In an exchange of messages, the former senator told me there had been quite a number of misconceptions regarding their effort.

There is, for instance, a protest that government is forcing the coconut farmers to take the chemical injection approach. There is suspicion some people want to make money on the purchase of chemicals. Kiko clarifies that “it isn’t true that we are only pushing for chemical injections. The organic protocols will also be made available.”

Kiko continues that “It isn’t also true that the chemical protocol is more expensive. In fact the tested organic protocols are more expensive as they require multiple applications.

“In the end, however, this is a race against time. The pest has doubled in the last 45 days. From 1.2 million affected trees in May to 2.1 million affected trees this June 19. If we do not intervene now, it will be 20 million trees infested by end of the year. If this was cancer, do we use chemotherapy or alternative, all natural treatments? Tough call.”

The former senator also pointed out that “the 2.1 million infested trees still represent less than one percent of the entire nation’s coconut tree population. The proposition that we will be killing the coconut industry if we use chemicals on less than one percent of the total tree population in order to keep the remaining 99.4 percent of the rest of the trees pest free and safe is unfounded and baseless.”

He reassures that “in the end, while we implement field tested protocols both organic and chemical, we will not stop testing other protocols in search for a superior treatment. We cannot, however, wait until then. We have to act with what we now have to contain the spread.”

The question I have on this coconut pest problem is how come the current Agriculture Secretary, who comes from a major coconut growing province, didn’t respond to the problem early on when it was just starting. Now, we are in panic mode because the problem is threatening to move up to crisis level.

I am hoping that on this and on the price upsurge of rice, garlic and other farm products, our officials will really use their coconuts and adopt a common sense approach towards resolving them.

I am glad Secretary Balisacan is apparently now being listened to. I am told that there had been vigorous debates within the Cabinet on how to reform policies specially as regards rice and the NFA. I am hopeful that in the end, P-Noy will be bold enough to break from the same old policies and approaches and listen to Sec. Balisacan.

Not only is the NEDA chief an expert on agricultural economics and poverty, he is probably just about one of the few Cabinet members who cannot be suspected of having ulterior motives. He had been a respected academician with actual field experience and no connections to the usual vested interests.

Maybe, Sec. Balisacan and former Sen. Pangilinan can lead the change we badly need… if P-Noy is brave enough to break with the discredited past.