“Rethink” agriculture interventions as COVID-19 lockdown reduces number of farmers, their income, and GDP – SEARCA chief

 May 8, 2020

The government should “rethink” interventions in agriculture as the COVID-19 lockdown has further cut number of farmers and their income,  —resulting in depressed demand for goods, food insecurity, and declining Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

   Onto the second month of the lockdown, a decline in Philippines’ agricultural production is being placed at 2.97% due to a decrease in the number of farmers tilling the land.

   “Due to lockdown, mobility restrictions result to quantity reduction in farm labor.  If it continues longer, this would translate to reduction in agriculture productivity,” according to Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, director of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).

   “The loss of income and economic slowdown would also result in decrease in demand, particularly among the farmers and farming families with no safety nets,” said the SEARCA chief over SEARCA Online Learning and Virtual Engagements (SOLVE) webinar on food security.

   The downturn in agricultural production is worsened by farmers’ limited access to farm inputs and markets to sell produce. 

   This has already resulted in profit losses and wastage of farm produce such as that in vegetable capital Benguet.

   Finally, the decrease in labor productivity due to COVID-19 could translate in reduction in GDP among ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries.

   Reduction in GDP due to farm labor productivity decline is placed at 1.4% (although this decline may be applied on most ASEAN countries affected by COVID-19).

Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, SEARCA chief, suggests an intensive collaborative approach to solving food security problems.

   Gregorio suggested a more collaborative approach in solving the food security problem.

   Collaboration should be intensified between government, industries, and the academe—the center and origin of many innovations and technology.

   “Our experience with COVID-19 highlights the importance of how we define food security. This becomes the basis of how we design programs and projects,” Gregorio stressed.

  Gregorio added that what is positive about the crisis from the pandemic is the increasing support of consumers as a result of their understanding between “what is on their plate and agriculture.”

   This is what government should capitalize on.

   Consumers have realized during the COVID-19 lockdown that if they do not support Filipino farmers and the farm sector, they will have nothing to eat—not the ideal nutritious kind everyone desires.

   Now everyone wants to turn to farming.

   “The agriculture sector could capitalize on this increasing support to identify several investments needed to strengthen the agriculture systems as food systems,” he said.

Massive Rice Imports

   An example may be on rice policy. 

   In the past, government has been threatened by imminent consumer protests against any high price in the staple.  Rice has become a political issue that compels government to come up with a food security policy with the fear that rice rationing may destabilize government; hence the massive rice importation.

   However, the liberalized rice importation has been pushing down local palay price.  If not complemented with appropriate safety nets program, this could send vulnerable farmers to avoidable poverty.  

   With present consumer support, government must expedite implementing more programs that also prioritize raising farmers’ income. 

   Reforms may zero in on producing value-added farm goods or consumer-demanded finished products.

Food security laggard

   As of 2019, the Philippines stood as one of the laggards in Global Food Security Index (GFSI) in ASEAN.  It placed fourth from bottom at around 60 points. 

   Other laggards are Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Myanmar which placed first to third from bottom.

   Those faring higher in GFSI among ASEAN countries are Singapore at  87.4 which was  reported by the GFSI March 2020 to be the most food secure in the world. 

   It was followed by Malaysia (73.8), Thailand (65.1), Vietnam and Indonesia (both 63 to 65).

   GFSI is a widely accepted metric in measuring food security based on food availability and affordability.

   While food availability and food affordability are two concerns, an underrated issue is nutritional security.

   It is a critical concern as Philippines was recorded to already have serious undernourishment level at around 15% of population as of 2017, making it the third most undernourished ASEAN country.

   “The highest prevalence of undernourishment (2017) in terms of percentage of the total population of a country was noted in Laos PDR (16.5%) and Cambodia (16.4%).Clearly, agriculture must not just aim for increased food production but also to improve the nutritional status of the population,” said Gregorio.

Five-Year Plan

   SEARCA under its 11th Five Year Plan (FYP) named these agenda  on Agriculture 4.0 which is a  concept of the future of agriculture focusing on use of technology for business efficiency.

    One is Open Innovation and Agri-Incubation. This entails partnering with the players and actors of the innovation community such as incubator houses, venture capital funders, universities, research institutions, as well as startups, small and medium enterprises, and corporations could support the goal of SEARCA.

  “While most startups are focused on developing digital technologies, incubators, and start-ups focused on Agriculture Research and Development technologies do not appear as popular in Southeast Asia,” said a SEARCA report.

Also on SEARCA’s agenda is Knowledge and Technology Transfer through an INtellecual Property Policy.

   SEARCA will also work with industry partners to implement Grants for Research Towards Agricultural Innovative Solutions (GRAINS) through four mechanisms: 1) Graduate Research with an Industry Partner, 2) Call for Research Proposals Based on Industry Need, 3) Engaging the Industry and the Youth in Promoting Agriculture and Rural Development, and 4) Academe-Industry-Government Interconnectivity.    

   Echoing the United Nations, Gregorio said food security is the combination of three elements:

   First is food availability which means food  must be available in sufficient quantities and on a consistent basis. It considers stock and production in a given area and the capacity to bring in food from elsewhere, through trade or aid. 

   Second is  food access  which means people must be able to regularly acquire adequate quantities of food, through purchase, home production, barter, gifts, borrowing or food aid.

   Third is food utilization which means consumed food must have a positive nutritional impact on people. It entails cooking, storage and hygiene practices, individuals ‘health, water and sanitation, feeding and sharing practices within the household.

  “Food stability has been added as a fourth pillar especially in consideration of the inherent exposure of Southeast Asia to weather and climate change-related hazards,” Gregorio said. Melody Mendoza Aguiba

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