The future of our seeds and plants

We were taught in the elementary grades that the Philippines is primarily an agricultural country. It still is today, although this may be changing. In 1960s, agriculture comprised around two-thirds of the 7,944,450 employed workers. This decreased in the 70s with slightly over one-half of the total employed. In 2013, the agricultural sector comprised 47 percent of the total labor force. In January 2015, according to Philippine Statistics Authority, only about 29.5 percent now belong to this sector. There is a radical downward trend in agriculture-sector participation to the labor force as compared the 60s, 70s and 80s. 

In terms of share to the total economy, the agriculture sector also saw a precipitous drop over the past decades. In 1946, for instance, about a third of the economy (29.7 percent) was agricultural, which then declined over the years. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, in 2012, it is now contributing a mere 11.1 percent to the economy in 2012.

The Philippines is not unique. Many Asean countries are also experiencing a similar shift as more and more workers troop to non-agriculture related activities. The decline may have been caused by a number of factors like economic managers adopting policies towards industrialization and the shrinkage of available arable lands due to urbanization. These have been compounded by the continuing preference by workers for the manufacturing and service sectors which offer better remuneration and return on investment.

With a burgeoning global population, shrinking agricultural resources and erratic climactic conditions brought about by climate change, ensuring sustainable food production and supply is a challenge. It has become more critical. This is where the Department of Agriculture comes in.

Since its establishment in 1988, the DA has been at the forefront of formulating and implementing policies and programs toward uplifting the lives of the Filipino farmers and fishermen. It has adopted measures to improve agricultural production, and other mechanisms that help farmers and other food producers to optimize their production inputs and incomes. It is mandated to promote “agricultural development by providing the policy framework, public investments, and support services needed for domestic and export-oriented business enterprises.”

Under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, the DA has rightfully prioritized not just production but the welfare of farmers. This approach has not been well appreciated because of the low-key style of Secretary Alcala but personally I have observed how small and poor farmers have benefited from this prioritization.

Secretary Alcala has also been the best agriculture secretary that I have seen in the area of climate change. Led by Undersecretary Fred Serrano, the climate team of the DA is a pleasure to work with on domestic and global climate change issues. They are visionary, hard-nosed and patriotic. They fiercely protect the national interest and that of farmers.

The same can be said of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. As I have written before, Secretary Alcala installed a wonderful team there led by veteran environmental lawyer, Director Asis Perez.

Finally, another area where Secretary Alcala has done well is in the area of plant conservation. This is one of the DA’s most important mandate but it has largely been overlooked.

The Bureau of Plant Industry is the government agency which implements programs of the Department of Agriculture to help the Filipino farmers on plant genetic resource conservation and management; improving crop farming system through research and development; production of quality seeds and planting materials; plant pest surveillance and forecasting; assisting farmers on pest management system and control strategies; enforcement of plant quarantine laws, rules and regulations; farm mechanization; provision of analytical services on physico-chemical, microbiological and pesticide residue analysis; provision of services on seed testing, seed certification and planting materials certification.

BPI is currently headed by lawye Paz Benavidez who is also the concurrently DA Assistant Secretary for regulations. Asec. Benavidez finished her law degree from the University of the Philippines in 1995. She was my student in law school and worked for my office in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources when I was an undersecretary there during the Ramos administration. In fact, I remember her appearing in my office on my second and third day there volunteering to be hired by me, insisting she would not leave until I hired her. She wanted to specialize in environment and natural resources issues as she has been a research consultant of the Committee on Ecology, House of Representatives while in law school.

Upon her assumption into office as OIC- Director of the Bureau of Plant Industry in July of 2014, Asec. Benavidez immediately reminded employees that she is not authorized to and will not accept any collections and donations for any purposes. Her statement is true to form because I know Asec. Benavidez very well as a person of integrity and competence.

She is not only a person with highly technical expertise in her field of competence. She has a humble and caring disposition who, without question, is an invaluable addition to the department. In researching this column, I have followed her work quietly for the last six months and I am impressed with the dedication and competence with which she has done her work, restoring confidence in a government agency that has also been in the headlines for controversies and scandals.

 During her DENR days, Asec. Benavidez was one of those instrumental in the formulation of the implementing rules and regulations of Philippine Executive Order No. 247, the regulatory framework for the prospecting of biological and genetic resources. Later she also served as a legal counsel of the Technical Secretariat of the Inter-Agency Committee on Biological and Genetic Resources. Today, building on her previous experience in this field, Asec. Benavidez has become a global leader in implementing the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This is one of the most important treaties for food security and for farmer rights. I am glad that the Philippines is at the forefront of its implementation.

Now that we are in the middle of an election campaign, many of us tend to take a no-prisoners approach in criticizing politicians and governance actors. As I have hopefully tried to show in various columns highlighting the great work of some officials, let’s not forget there are good things being done now, as there were in other administrations. These are beyond partisan politics. Among others, it’s a good and comforting thought to know that the future of our plants and seeds are assured with Asec. Benavidez leading the Bureau of Plant Industry.


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