IN his inaugural speech, President Bongbong Marcos surprised the country’s peasant leaders and CSO agridev advocates with his declaration of support for “food self-sufficiency” as a national goal and his stinging critique of “unfair competition” in global agri trade.

He thundered: “The role of agriculture cries for urgent attention that its neglect and misdirection now  demands. Food self-sufficiency is the key promise of every administration. None but one delivered. There were inherent defects in the old ways and in recent ways too. The trade policy of competitive  advantage made the case that when it comes to food sufficiency a country should not produce, but import what other countries make more of and sell cheapest…

“Food  is not just a trade commodity. Without it, people weaken and die, societies come apart. It is more than a livelihood, it is an existential imperative, and a moral one.  An agriculture damaged (and) diminished by unfair competition will have a harder time or will have no prospects at all of recovering. Food sufficiency must get the preferential treatment the richest free trade countries always gave their agricultural sectors. Their policy boils down to don’t  do as we do, do what we tell you to.”

The proponents of import liberalization in agriculture, past and present, must be squirming when the President uttered the above words. Since the 1980s, they have been espousing the neo-liberal mantra: food security is best attained when a country is able to source or procure ample and reasonably-priced food from the global market for its people. Under this thinking, sufficient food production at home need not be pursued as long as food can be bought  from cheaper producers in other countries. So what happens to the home producers  disadvantaged by global “free trade competition”? No need to worry. They can be nudged to shift to the production of other  crops, especially export-oriented ones, that enjoy “comparative advantage” in the envisioned liberalized agricultural market.

Based on the above thinking and with huge doses of World Bank assistance and advice (under a so-called “structural adjustment  program”), the Philippines abandoned in the first half of the 1980s the “Masagana 99” program of the late Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. To the great consternation of then Secretary Bong Tangco, the WB-supported “agricultural deregulation” removed the subsidy program for rice farmers and whittled down the role of the National Food Authority (NFA) in the buying of rice and corn and in the profitable importation of wheat and other agricultural products. In the 1990s, the neo-liberalizers tariffied the agri sector and submitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a schedule of industrial and agricultural tariffs that are way below our neighboring countries such as Thailand. From then on, agriculture, especially food production, was neglected. It never received the promised “modernization” assistance from various administrations despite the billions allotted annually for agri modernization and transformation. And then in 2019, Congress passed the Rice Tariffication Law to complete the overall deregulation and liberalization of the agri sector. RTL further weakened a very weak NFA and transformed the national rice trading system as a commercial preserve of the big private importers and distributors-retailers.

Now what does the President mean when he made the remark that the policy of the big free-trade countries is “don’t  do as we do, do what we tell you to? This is really a summation of what has been happening in the global trade talks since the formation of the WTO in 1995. The series of WTO Ministerial talks (Seattle, 1999; Cancun, 2003; Hong Kong, 2005, etc.) collapsed because of the insistence of developed countries led by the United States and EU for developing countries to open their agricultural markets in a wholesale manner and phase out protection to their home producers. The developing countries, led by India and Indonesia and supported by farmer groups/CSOs, have been questioning the hypocrisy of the developed countries. Why is the United States providing billions of subsidies to their agricultural producers through the US Farm law (renewed every five years)? Why is the EU maintaining the Common Agricultural Policy, a system of massive subsidies for European farmers erected in the 1960s?  Yes, don’t do as we do and do what we tell you to.

So in the light of the President’s inaugural discussion on the country’s lack of food sufficiency under a one-sided global agri trade arrangement, what do we expect the President and concurrent DA secretary do? Many peasant leaders and CSO agridev campaigners are pleasantly surprised with the President’s inaugural speech.  Enthused by the President’s speech, they have submitted a long list of needed reform measures in the sector such as adequate budget for the sector, effective credit and insurance program, value chain development, full support services to farmers, increased NFA procurement capability, fertilizer subsidy, moratorium on land conversion, repeal/revision of the RTL and non-ratification of the Regional  Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

However, to this writer, first things first. The President should abandon the neo-liberal concept of food security, which has really become a national security issue as well given the uncertain and volatile world we  are living in (e.g., unpredictable long-term outcomes of the US/Nato-Russia war in Ukraine). There should be a formal policy declaration on the pursuit and implementation of food self-sufficiency in basic staples such as rice and corn.  

In relation to this, the proposal for a Masagana 150 is laudable. But for M 150 to work, the government should not forget the reasons why Masagana 99 of President Marcos Sr. worked in the mid-1970s but collapsed in the early 1980s. There are at least four reasons for the collapse: 1)  dependence on IRRI-provided HYV seeds, which turned out to be heavily dependent on farm inputs (when the prices of these inputs rose in 1979-1981, widespread farm indebtedness followed); 2) imposition by the IMF-World Bank of the policy of “agricultural  deregulation,” which reduced government subsidy and NFA price support program for the rice farmers; 3) failure of the cooperative Samahang Nayon program to take off because of bad leadership and corruption; and 4) slowdown in agrarian reform implementation. 

So for M 150  to work, the Marcos administration should try to avoid the above weaknesses that killed M 99. Additionally, one must add the importance of having an integrated approach in agricultural development under a decisive leadership and in putting  the farmers (not the big  agribusiness and seed firms) at the center of development as partners in reform implementation.

Now the final question: can the President secure the support of his economic team in the promotion of an alternative development paradigm on food security and economic development? 

Dr. Rene E. Ofreneo is a Professor Emeritus of the University of the Philippines.

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