Urgently needed: Full-time, hands-on overseer for DA

To be sure, the apparent crisis bedeviling agriculture is not limited to the unbelievably astronomical price of onions.

The story told to senators by Merlita Gallardo during a committee hearing on the plight of onion farmers last Monday, 16 January is heart-wrenching.

In 2021, Gallardo’s husband took his own life after the family’s onion farm in Pangasinan was devastated by crop-devouring armyworms, leaving the Gallardos practically impoverished.

Driven by the need to survive, the widow Merlita plugged on planting onions, but a series of storms in 2022 destroyed her crops. She lost most of whatever borrowings she had made to replant and because of the continued rains, the harvest from her small farm yielded small onions.

Yet, Merlita managed to struggle on, although now it is certain that the looming arrival of cheap onion imports by the Department of Agriculture will depress the price of locally-produced onions like Merlita’s, and will likely finish off the poor widow.

Gallardo’s poignant story, echoed by thousands of other small farmers like her, is moving many quarters, including members of the Senate, to call for a full-time chief overseer at the DA who would devote his (or her) time and undivided attention to the crisis plaguing the agricultural sector.

The DA has been rocked by strong criticism for what many quarters call the poorly-timed approval by the President, who currently heads the department, of the importation of over 21,000 metric tons of onions in early January this year.

Leaders of farmer groups like the Federation of Free Farmers Cooperatives head, Raul Montemayor, said the onion importation will come just as farmers are about to harvest their onion crop.
The government, he said, “is playing into the hands of traders; it (importation) will cause the further lowering of prices of onions, and traders will take advantage of the situation and buy low from the farmers who, sadly, will have no choice but to sell their produce to them.”

Senators agree that there was a miscalculation by the DA in the timing of its decision to import onions in January. A visibly irked Senator Grace Poe couldn’t contain herself during the 16 January committee hearing at the Senate.

She remarked, “Prices had long been high but the department refused to import in December last year; now it’s as if the DA is saying, no, we were just kidding then and now, we’re allowing importation.”

For his part, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III asked DA officials at the hearing, “You have about a hundred years of experience, how do you process the information you get from all that dialogue with your stakeholders? Why were the more than 10,000 metric tons of onions you said were in cold storage in various parts of the country unable to meet the demand last year?”

To be sure, the apparent crisis bedeviling agriculture is not limited to the unbelievably astronomical price of onions.

There too are eggs, the price of which has skyrocketed by as much as 45 percent, even as homes are seeing pantries short of such staples as salt and sugar.

The proposed importation of some 450,000 metric tons of sugar is causing apprehension among local sugar groups and other stakeholders who are also asking the DA to do its importation after the milling season so as not to depress millgate prices and disadvantage sugarcane farmers.

These are not minor problems that could be made to disappear by importation only.

The agricultural sector is beleaguered by many other complex worries, including climate change and its effects on farmlands, the African swine fever, Avian Flu, and the ongoing Russian-instigated war in Ukraine which is causing farm and food production costs to spiral.

It cannot be reiterated enough: the undivided attention of a full-time hands-on Secretary of Agriculture is urgently needed to address all these and other myriad critical problems that threaten what the President himself early on in his term recognized as an urgent priority — food security, and the survival of farmers and their sector.

It came from the President’s mouth in Davos for the World Economic Forum. There he told WEF President Borge Brende, in a dialogue, that he was being “kept up night and day and most of the time” by the South China Sea dispute, and the Philippines being “at the very frontline in cross-trade tensions between China and the US, whenever these tensions increase, we’re watching as bystanders and if something goes wrong here, we are going to suffer.”

How, pray tell, can our Chief of State effectively focus and deal with such important matters which he said keep him “sleepless” if, too, he would allow himself to be tormented by the multiple pressing problems in agriculture?

Let not the visage of a weary, over-burdened Melita Gallardo grieving for her dead husband and her poor farm ravaged by nature and man-made forces dampen whatever high you may have brought home with you from your warm reception at Davos, Mr. President.
Lessen your sleepless days and nights and appoint a bonafide Agriculture Secretary post-haste, Sir. You owe it to our farmers and the country; you owe it to yourself, Mr. President.

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