By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief

MANDALUYONG CITY — Incoming and outgoing officials of the Philippine government warned the country is now suffering a food crisis partly due to the global food chain disturbance triggered by the Ukraine-Russia war, the onset of avian flu and other local and external factors, prompting President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to decide that he will take on Secretary of Agriculture portfolio, at least “for now.”

Marcos made the announcement only days before his inauguration and assumption to office at a briefing with his incoming members of his economic team at their Mandaluyong City headquarters, pointing out that the Department of Agriculture will have to be re-organized, especially its Food Terminal Inc. (FTI), and the National Food Authority (NFA) agencies, and retooled to increase production, especially rice.

Marcos’ decision was immediately welcomed by incoming Agrarian Reform chief Conrado Estrella III, outgoing Agriculture Secretary William Dar, former Agriculture Secretaries Leonardo Montemayor and  Emmanuel Pinol and other leaders of the agriculture, farming and business sectors, agreeing with the incoming President that the country is in a precarious situation.

“As to agriculture, I think the problem is severe enough that I have decided to take on the portfolio of Secretary of Agriculture at least for now. At least until we can reorganize the Department of Agriculture in the way that we’ll make it ready for the next years to come,” said Marcos at a press briefing in Mandaluyong City.
Marcos even predicted that prices of prime commodities may increase in the coming months due to external and local forces so the government should do something to cushion the impact of the food crisis.

Earlier, incoming Economic Planning Secretary and National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) chief Arsenio Balisacan warned that the country’s agriculture sector is already in crisis worsened by the avian flu which has led to meat price increases that is threatening the nation.

“Food crisis have risen already. As you know, the avian flu, this problem has been with us that has led to crippling price increases of meat. Rice prices have also been a problem,” Balicasan said in a television interview.

The prices of poultry and other meat products have triggered a chain of increases in the prices of prime commodities, including sugar, cooking oil, fish and vegetables, officials said, adding that prices of gasoline and petroleum products have also soared.

Marcos  pointed out a bleaker scenario for the country as some rice-producing countries, particularly Thailand and Vietnam, are now planning to limit their exports to protect their citizens from rising prices.

Rice-importing countries like the Philippines will have to increase local production to cope up with the situation, he stressed.

“In the meantime, we really have to sit down, tighten our belts and protect those who must be protected,” according to Marcos as echoed by Balicasan . “I’m referring to the poor and the vulnerable. While we have resources, limited as they are, we should provide assistance to these groups so they wouldn’t feel disproportionately the burden of the shocks.”

The incoming NEDA chief said in order to protect the poor, subsidies must be more targeted, and the issuance of the National ID should be fast-tracked to help facilitate a quicker rollout of assistance.

He also called for an increase in funding for the Department of Agriculture in order for the agriculture sector to reach a higher growth level. The DA has been proposing an annual funding of more ₱200 billion, but it was only granted an ₱85.5-billion budget for 2022.

Balisacan added that while rice tariffication has slightly brought down the price cap on the staple, they remain high. Farmers are also facing numerous issues such as the low profitability of rice farming and farming in general.

“With that, I would say that our agriculture is in crisis,” he said.

Balisacan said the problem has already been exacerbated by global supply disruptions that would likely continue in the coming months, warning that exporting countries will eventually limit their exports to protect their own citizens.

Balisacan stressed the need to protect vulnerable sectors already saddled by the rising prices of basic commodities.

Former DA chief Manny Piñol lauded Marcos’ assumption of the DA post as “a brilliant move and a big break for Philippine agriculture.

“Now, the DA secretary would not need to wiggle through the gauntlet of the Development Budget Coordinating Committee composed of financial managers which determines how much budget is allocated for each department,” Piñol said.

Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Dar said there is really a “major disruption of the food supply chain” in a global scale, and the issue can be likened to the impacts of the pandemic.

Dar said the DA has prepared an action plan that is geared towards subsidizing and boosting the productivity level of farmers, local feed formulation, promoting urban gardening, and strengthening market access, among others.

The decision of President-elect Marcos Jr. to temporarily take the helm at the Department of Agriculture is a welcome development because it shows agriculture will be the incoming administration’s top priority,  Dar said.

Marcos said taking on the role of DA chief would prove his administration was taking issues concerning the agricultural sector seriously, and also that it would help move things “quickly.”

“The events of the global economy are moving very quickly we have to be agile, we have to be able to respond properly, in a measured way as soon as there is a situation that needs to be addressed,” he added.

Marcos said they foresee an increase in food prices in the coming months because of external forces, and while the country has been able to weather these, more has to be done.

“We have been able in the Philippines, in the last few weeks, to adjust to the new situation in terms of the importations from Ukraine and from Russia. But these emergency measures we have taken will not be sufficient for the long run. And that’s why we have to plan in a more thorough fashion than just responding,” he said.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno said in March that the country’s limited economic ties with both Ukraine and Russia may insulate the country from the conflict. Imports from Russia in 2021 comprised 0.6 percent of the country’s total imports, and from Ukraine, 0.1 percent, according to BSP’s Department of Economic Research.

Marcos said he has asked several agencies — the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Economic and Development Authority, the Department of Budget and Management and the Department of Finance — to begin making economic forecasts on what the country could face for this year when it comes to food supply.