Farmer and food

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Shelley Pauls on Unsplash

A friend told me that a Secretary for Agriculture would soon be appointed and even gave me a name. He was right. A few days later, Francisco Tiu Laurel, Jr., the name given to me, was indeed appointed. I know nothing about the man, which is a plus as far as I am concerned. That means the fated man is not an elderly citizen like me, a badly needed factor for a sector that needs extraordinary dynamism.

I have heard of Frabelle, the multi-faceted company, and the Frabelle couple who established and continue to run it. I know they are a very well-known name in the fishing industry and now are deeply into many other food products plus real estate development. In other words, a wealthy family now touts a son as a strategic Cabinet Secretary. Because the Frabelle Group of Companies is into fishing and several food products, I have heard fears of a conflict of interest between business and public service.

That possibility exists in Philippine officialdom because our highest public officials, elected and appointed, are mostly rich. The network of wealthy Filipinos crisscross business and politics. I cannot remember an era, not even from colonial times, that did not have the elite dominating the highest positions that Filipinos could attain. The poor sometimes make it, too, but not without a clique of wealthy Filipinos backing them up.

The future does not offer much change in the setup. If we go by the last national elections in 2022 and the very recent barangay elections last month, money is the single most significant factor in deciding who will win and govern the Philippines. Conflict of interest? Elections, per se, are already a conflict of interest the way they are in the country.

The Lopez brothers, Eugenio and Fernando, were tycoons from the early 20th century. Furthermore, Fernando was elected Vice-President and concurrently was Secretary of Agriculture in 1949 when he was just in his forties. Again, in 1969, Fernando was elected as Vice-President and appointed Secretary of Agriculture concurrently. The Lopez brothers were more than rich; they had haciendas and sugar mills among their other businesses. Conflict of interest?

Go around the Philippines today and check who the senators and congressmen are, the governors and mayors, their clans, and business networks. We do not need history to feel that there can be conflicts of interest because they are there all over, before our very eyes, if we want to see them. That is why I am not so concerned about something familiar and has been a common historical truth.

My greatest concerns follow the same priorities of the government (hopefully) and well-meaning citizens. I look at the small farmers in the tens of millions, who make up among the poorest in the Philippines. I look at the food situation and the ever-recurring pattern of food shortages and consequential price spikes. The new Secretary of Agriculture wants to improve the lot of small farmers and fishermen. In other words, he wants them to earn more and consistently.

“It is easy to be cynical – with more than ample justification. But if we do not hope, we will not do our part in improving our farmers’ capacity to produce the food we need. If we do not hope, we will become blasé about the poverty of our people in the countryside.”

He also wants to ensure a steady food supply in the Philippines and not unduly dependent on imports. That means he will have to push the productivity of the farming and fishing sectors to get the production levels up and keep them affordable. In other words, he is asking for a miracle, but this time, he has to trigger it, not God.

It is dangerous to hope nowadays, considering the state of politics, economics, ethics, and governance in the Philippines. It is easy to be cynical – with more than ample justification. But if we do not hope, we will not do our part in improving our farmers’ capacity to produce the food we need. If we do not hope, we will become blasé about the poverty of our people in the countryside.

I must hope whatever the consequences, and mostly, it is frustration and aggravation when expectations turn to real failures. I cannot see fast and easy success in agriculture. I cannot see success even with a great effort from the new Secretary of Agriculture – because success will come slowly and become visible only after his term – if he does well.

But if he does well, the farmers will feel it, and the fisherfolk will feel it. Once they feel it, they will work harder because hope will only enter their minds and hearts when they see small successes daily. The lack of capacity of our farmers, which makes them unproductive in competitive terms, has persisted for generations because their environment was more restrictive than their aspirations and hard work. Only more extraordinary powers, like local and national governments and the private business sector, have what the farmers and fisherfolk lack the most.

A young tycoon might just be the extraordinary trigger for the needed transformation. He does not only have access to his family’s resources and network, he has a friend in Malacañang. He will need to use them to initiate experiments to influence the other players in the food industry. He must have the guts, too. But most of all, he must have the integrity to counter the temptation from a natural environment known as a conflict of interest.

Wishful thinking? Setting myself up for another cycle of disappointment? Most probably. Yet, what else can someone like me do except try and try again, hope and plan again, and contribute and encourage others again? I have seen so much and long realized that the primary position of our less fortunate has not improved over my lifetime. And I cannot stop hoping for them and their better tomorrow.

We are one people: the rich, the poor, and the in-between. We may enjoy or suffer differently in ordinary moments, but we will prosper or collapse together when the worst times come. We have to learn to be one people again.

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