OPINION: Managing agriculture right

MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - An advisory team had recommended to the Department of Agriculture (DA) back in 2010, a shift from centralized top-down management to province-led devolution.

Two of five paradigm shifts an advisory team I led had recommended to the Department of Agriculture (DA) back in 2010, which limited space prevented me from discussing last time, have to do with governance in the sector. These refer to a shift from centralized top-down management to province-led devolution, and a shift from commodity- and project-oriented organization and budgeting to one that is function-oriented.

A favorite anecdote I have told many times (including in this column) drives home the point of the first paradigm shift. When another study team I led many years ago asked a farmer leader in the Mindanao highlands what he would ask of government if granted one wish, his reply was carabaos — needed, he explained, to till the vast plateau of idle grassland around them. We asked what they were getting from the government. His answer: fertilizers and seeds. “We take them anyway and sell them, as they’re of no use to us if we can’t till the land,” he said. We asked the extension worker why she had not reported the actual needs of this community to her superiors, and she ruefully replied, “I’ve told them over and over, but these programs all come to us from Manila, and they’ve already made up their minds that it’s fertilizers and seeds they will distribute.”

The Local Government Code (LGC), which devolved farm extension services, was already 17 years old at that time. Our recommendation was to get away from the DA’s persistent top-down management approach in favor of province-led devolution, based on the sound governance principle of subsidiarity: Let the unit of government closest to (hence best understands) the problems on the ground be the ones to identify and implement the solutions. But the DA secretary flatly rejected this, actually wanting to recentralize farm extension on the argument
that he “can’t be effective if he doesn’t control his soldiers.”

We argued that the DA’s leadership in the sector is best exercised by “steering,” while letting local government units (LGUs) take care of “rowing.” It is the LGUs, not the DA, that must worry about frontline delivery of public goods and services, extension and making inputs more accessible to farmers. But rather than leave the municipal agriculture officers to their own resources, as what happened under the LGC, provincial governments would best exercise effective coordination over them. For this to work, the DA must make it a core responsibility and function to capacitate and enable provincial agricultural offices to perform this coordinative job well, with the corresponding budget to support it.

Rather than engage in distribution of fertilizers and seeds (which is misplaced to begin with, as the DA’s support would best focus on public goods like irrigation, transport and other common facilities), we argued that the DA, in its steering role, must focus on its core central functions. Besides technical capacity-building and assistance for LGUs, these include policy, regulation (standard-setting, quarantine, inspection, licensing and certification), and international negotiations. Direct farmer support is not its role, but that of LGUs.

Finally, the DA must get away from a commodity- and project-oriented structure and budget, and organize itself and its budget to primarily support its core functions described above. Regulatory functions, for one, need to be consolidated in an agency focused on that role, and not combined with developmental functions in specific commodity bureaus, which leads to dangerous conflict of interest.

Scholars have long lamented how, over the years, more than half of the agriculture budget has been inordinately focused on rice even as it accounts for less than one-sixth the value of total farm production. Meanwhile, public spending has been lacking for farm export crops, major import-competing ones like corn and sugar, and commodities where poverty incidence is highest, namely, coconut and fisheries. A more function-oriented budget could correct this budget distortion, while leaving the commodity focus to local governments in accordance with local endowments.

All told, agriculture is too important to be left to the DA alone.

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