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The hard rows to hoe for Marcos Jr., president-cum-agriculture-secretary

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 25, 2022 11:47 am

President-elect Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. has taken it upon himself to lead the Department of Agriculture (DA) "at least for now," citing "severe" problems in the sector.

Though perceived as a rare move, presidents appointing themselves to cabinet positions is not an unprecedented one, much less an unconstitutional one. Six presidents before Marcos Jr., including his dictator father Ferdinand Marcos Sr., already pulled it off:

  • Ramon Magsaysay - Department of National Defense (January to May 1954)
  • Carlos Garcia - Department of Foreign Affairs (March to August 1957)
  • Marcos Sr. - DND (1965 to 1967, 1971 to 1972)
  • Joseph “Erap” Estrada - Department of Interior and Local Government (June 1998 to April 1999)
  • Gloria Macapagal Arroyo - DFA (June to July 2002); DND (June to October 2003, December 2006 to February 2007)
  • Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III - DILG (June to July 2010)

Experts noted that presidents usually do this to let Filipinos know where their administration’s area of focus will be, if not simply a temporary set-up until they find candidates who are cut out for the job.

During his second press conference on June 20 since winning by a majority vote, Marcos Jr. said that in appointing himself to the agriculture portfolio, not only it becomes clear to Filipinos that the sector is his "high priority,” but it’s also a "practical matter" that allows things to "move quickly"—in line with the events of the global economy "moving very quickly."

He said his concurrent role will go on at least until the DA gets reorganized "in the way that will make it ready for the next years to come."

Last May, outgoing DA Sec. William Dar warned about the impending food crisis during the fourth quarter of 2022, attributing it to the pandemic-stricken economy, rising fuel prices, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Farmers from Anao in Tarlac at work. (Andy G. Zapata Jr./The Philippine STAR)

"(Marcos Jr.) would like to tell the country that he'll be focusing on an important crisis in front of us," Dindo Manhit, founder of think tank ADR Stratbase Institute, told PhilSTAR L!fe. "He can put the full force of his presidency on his role as head of the agriculture department.”

“The politics of food is very important, that's what we call a gut issue. The government needs to find a way to mitigate its effect (food crisis) on the greater population,” he added.

For Maria Ela Atienza of the University of the Philippines Diliman's Department of Political Science, Marcos Jr. naming himself as DA secretary can also mean that he cannot find someone fit for the "crucial role” but himself, at least for the time being.

“He sees that there's nobody willing to take on the many challenges,” Atienza told PhilSTAR L!fe.

She, however, also noted that it’s “strange” for Marcos Jr. to not have any other choice, at least for the agriculture portfolio, saying he’s expected to have his would-be cabinet all mapped out already since months ago—given that he’s the campaign frontrunner and subsequently the first majority president since 1986.

“Pwede rin na ang gusto niyang ilagay diyan (sa DA) is somebody who's not yet qualified,” Atienza said, pertaining to the year-long appointment ban on losing candidates.

Hard rows to hoe for DA secretary Marcos Jr.

Dar said Marcos Jr.’s first order of business as DA secretary must be to ensure sufficient and affordable food supply, noting that over 20 countries have made restrictions in exporting their food products.

“There is really a major disruption of the food supply chain. And so this is a big, big problem,” he said, describing it as a kind of “pandemic” in itself.

(Marcos Jr.) would like to tell the country that he'll be focusing on an important crisis in front of us. — Dindo Manhit

In handling the agriculture portfolio, Marcos Jr. said he has two main goals: increase rice production to “counteract some of the increase in prices,” and restructure the DA “to be more responsive to the global situation now when it comes to food supply.”

Rice production is on the decline recently, as farmers are forced to use less fertilizers due to steep increase in prices. As of May, a 50-kilo bag of the commonly used urea costs around P2,800, with a hectare of rice using an average of four bags worth P11,200. A bag of urea was worth P1,200 last year and P800 in 2020.

In restructuring the DA, Marcos Jr. said there are offices that are “underutilized” and need to be “retooled” for the post-pandemic era. Attached agencies like the National Food Authority (NFA) and the Food Terminal Inc. (FTI), he said, must return to their original functions, noting they have already changed over the years. The NFA, created to promote the growth and development of grains like rice and corn, is in charge of ensuring food security nationwide and ensuring the stability of rice prices and supply. The FTI, intended as a food consolidation center, leases lots for small and medium-sized enterprises that runs agriculture-related businesses.

Andy G. Zapata Jr./The Philippine STAR

Another issue blighting the agriculture industry that Marcos Jr. has to deal with is the Republic Act 11203 or the Rice Tariffication Law. Signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019, it removes quantitative restrictions on rice imports and places a 35% tariff instead. Part of the proceeds from the tariffs would be, in turn, allocated to a fund to help local farmers.

In any case, the law inevitably gives foreign competitors the upper hand.

Asked whether Marcos Jr. would be open to amending the law, he didn’t explicitly say so, and instead mentioned his plan to invest more on local farmers by increasing allocations from the tariff-generated funds.

“There’s P10 billion that is returned to the farming community. Maybe we can have a look at that and see,” he said during his presscon last June 20. “Kung minsan meron pang unspent, so, pwede pang gamitin iyan.”

Marcos Jr.’s campaign spiel of bringing rice prices down to P20 a kilo has also left citizens and stakeholders waiting with bated breath.

To date, regular milled rice is P38 a kilo, as palay is worth P19 a kilo according to the NFA website. (The rule of thumb is that the retail price of rice is at least double the farm-gate price of palay.)

The Department of Trade and Industry previously said it’s plausible but not immediately, as a thorough study is needed in gradually implementing it. Progressive farmers group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, meanwhile, outrightly said it's impossible due to the rice tariffication law.

A lot on President Marcos Jr.'s plate

Apart from the pressing issues of the agriculture portfolio, Atienza said holding concurrent jobs as chief executive and cabinet secretary is a tall order.

“Malaking trabaho na iyon (presidency), at kailangan niya mag-concentrate doon,” she said, adding that while agriculture can be Marcos Jr.’s priority, he still needs someone in charge of the department’s day-to-day activities—on top of doing other jobs expected of him as president of the country. “It can detract him.”

Manhit said Marcos Jr. also placed himself in a position with much greater accountability, as he’s expected to perform “very well” as president-cum-DA secretary.

“He needs to deliver on that,” Manhit said of Marcos Jr.’s double role.

Malaking trabaho na iyon (presidency), at kailangan niya mag-concentrate doon. It can detract him. — Maria Ela Atienza

In addition, they pointed out that Marcos Jr. must deal with the pandemic-stricken economy the Duterte administration will leave behind. The country’s record P13-trillion debt, the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, some 88 big-ticket infrastructure projects under ‘Build, Build, Build,’ among many other issues, are also rearing their heads on the Marcos Jr. administration.

"It's a big challenge. Kung titingnan natin, his narrative during the campaign is ibabalik niya ang 'glory days' (during Marcos Sr.'s term)," Atienza said.

Marcos Jr. will take his oath of office at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila on June 30.