Making the Right Choice

PHOTO CONTENT: PA Joey Concepcion hosted a dinner for Agriculture Secretary Manny Pinol together with agri entrepreneurs and stakeholders last night. Discussion revolved on the current issues in Philippine agriculture on various commodities such as rice and sugar, programs with big brothers to support farmers, and other concerns. Attendees include: Ginggay Hontiveros – Malvar (Go Negosyo), Winston Uy (Universal Leaf), Edwin Chen (Bounty Fresh), Henry Lim Bon Liong (SL Agritech), Simon Bakker (Kenner Foods), William Dar (Prasad/Inang Lupa), Toto Barcelona (Harbest), Rene Cabati (Universal Robina), Bobby Amores (Philfoodex), Dante Delima (ATISCO), and Cherrie Atilano (AGREA).

Last Tuesday, I hosted our annual gathering with Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol together with the big brothers in agriculture who are in the sectors of rice, cacao, fruits and vegetables, sugar, and livestock among others. We discussed efforts from the government and the private sector and how we can push for poverty alleviation for our farmers through agripreneurship since majority come from this sector.

On a side note, in a separate meeting I had with Commission on Higher Education (CHED) chairman Popoy de Vera, he shared that the number of students enrolled in agriculture courses has significantly dropped by as much as 70 percent. This shows that many young Filipinos does not want to enter the agriculture sector. I don’t blame them as I, too, find agri businesses difficult to handle. When my grandfather, Salvador Araneta, was the secretary of agriculture, we were still establishing our company RFM which was into feedmilling and poultry. When I joined the company, I shifted from agribusiness to branded business. What discouraged me in pursuing agribusiness was the uncontrollable factors such as weather, volatility of commodities, disease in livestock and importation of chicken, and many other variables.

Going back, many successful agripreneurs are passionate, focused and totally hands-on in their businesses – the likes of Winston Uy, who is the biggest tobacco producer, Henry Lim Bon Liong who is the leader in hybrid rice, or Tennyson Chen, who is one of the largest poultry integrators in the country. Yes, there is money to be made in agriculture for those who have these characteristics.

One of the biggest issue now is the rice tariffication bill which will allow rice importation. Is it good for the country and our farmers? With the approval of the bill, there will be more competition as rice from other countries will come into the Philippines. Competition is good because it will encourage the sector to be more productive, forcing them to adapt modern equipment, and use hybrid or inbred seeds. The tariff, which will be collected shall be used to support the farmers and equip them to be more competitive. However, the implementation shall take time as many of the farmers work through cooperatives unlike big corporations which mobilize fast as the decision-making is centralized to the owner of the company. So during the transition period, we need safeguards to protect the pendulum from swinging to the extremes that will create an oversupply situation pushing down rice prices.

William Dar, former agriculture secretary, also shared that without the right safety measures, when majority of the rice supply will come from other countries, the local rice industry will suffer. He also shared that some studies show that around 30 to 40 percent of rice farmers would likely get out of the rice industry because of this liberalization. So it is important to have safety nets in implementing the bill so as not to create additional burden to our rice farmers.

In short, I am for the tariffication of rice with all the proper safeguards in place, including the use of funds that would enable our farmers to be better farm-entrepreneurs. This is the way forward that will eventually move them out of poverty. It is not going to be easy. Some might even fail, but again with passion, perseverance and hard work, one will become successful.

Meanwhile, the sugar industry should not be exempted from going through this same process that the rice sector is going through. It will not be fair, as clearly, imported sugar is much lower than locally produced. Something must be done so that our sugar farmers and millers will be competitive.

The Gokongwei Group, as explained by their sugar and renewables general manager Rene Cabati, shared that they have invested in equipment and diversified into other products.

Competition is important to keep us in shape. I give it to our economic team that they are on the right track in ensuring that our industries remain competitive. I also credit Sec. Manny Piñol for his passion in helping our farmers. He has one of the difficult jobs balancing the interest of the consumers and the farmers.

I believe that with the government and private sector collaborating well to improve the sector, we can help majority of our people rise above poverty. The big brothers are willing to support the farmers and help them be globally competitive. Hopefully, in the next coming years, we can have a stronger agricultural sector which can compete with countries like Thailand or Vietnam.