One overlooked pandemic of sorts is hitting the country’s agricultural sector, which could have been the only potential growth source for the Philippine economy last year.

Isn’t it ironic that in this archipelago of 7,100 islands, a tropical paradise, a place of sprawling rice fields as far as the eye can see, tens of thousands of hog raisers and poultry farms, the agriculture industry seems to be in a perennial struggle to develop?

In the first quarter, the country’s farm sector contracted 3.3 percent year-on-year, worse than the 1.7 percent decline a year ago.

African swine fever

The African swine fever (ASF) hit hog raisers, ravaging the meat industry and severely affecting supply. ASF outbreaks have been reported in 12 regions and across 46 provinces in the Philippines since 2019.

And it’s far from over.

As it is now, “the ASF is responsible for the significant reduction in the country’s swine population by around three million hogs, resulting in more than P100 billion ($2.08 billion) in losses to the local hog sector and allied industries, and leading to increased retail prices of pork products,” according to President Duterte’s Proclamation 1143 issued last month, declaring a nationwide state of calamity because of the ASF.

Despite the proclamation, which mandates government agencies to help in the rehabilitation of the local industry, pork producers are asking the government for more support instead of focusing more on import liberalization and the country’s commitment to the World Trade Organization to enhance international trade.

But it is a slippery slope for the government as it also needs to ensure an adequate supply of pork in the country. Thus, it temporarily slashed import tariffs on pork.

Lessons for poultry, other industries

The government must heed the lessons from the ASF pandemic and ensure that other agriculture sub-sectors will not suffer the same fate.

The poultry industry, for instance, must stay virus-free because if the government isn’t careful, the sector may also be hit by diseases similar to the ASF.

Fortunately, despite a global pandemic of Avian flu, the local poultry industry has been declared free of the highly pathogenic H5N6 virus – at least for now.

Earlier outbreaks in Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, and a village in Rizal have been contained.

However, the government needs to continuously monitor the situation to ensure that the Philippines, a major importer of chicken and other poultry products, will remain free from any disease.

Again, it’s another slippery slope for our authorities because if there are problems in local supply, the government has no choice but to increase imports to ensure continued chicken products for consumers.

Steady growth for the poultry industry

The good news is that prior to COVID-19, the Philippine poultry industry has actually been growing steadily, even allowing us to enjoy a surplus in supply – this at least has given the industry some cushion amid the crisis.

I checked the statistics on chicken from the Philippine Statistics Authority and other government data and here’s what I gathered – from 2015, the country produced 1.35 million metric tons of chicken, higher than the consumption of 1.25 million that year. This grew steadily with local production reaching 1.56 million metric tons in 2019, also higher than chicken consumption of 1.46 million metric tons that year.

However, things changed when COVID-19 struck, and for this year, the industry forecasts lower production at 1.34 million metric tons against an estimated consumption of 730,000 metric tons, taking into account the contraction of tourism and the hotel industry.

The average Filipino per capita consumption also nearly doubled through the years, from just 7.2 kilograms in 2006 to 12.8 kg of chicken a year in 2018. This is forecast to grow to 14.1 kg by 2025, OECD statistics showed.

Now in the pandemic, the poultry industry has remained resilient and has provided livelihood despite the uncertain business environment, industry players told me.

Integrators, for instance, did not close shop to secure the country’s food supply and the poultry sector has been able to provide employment to our chicken and corn farmers and other ancillary businesses.

I even saw employees of a poultry company distributing a truckload of chicken products in a community pantry near my place.

These employees may well be considered frontliners because they did not stop producing to ensure continued food supply. The same goes for the hog raisers, the fishermen, the rice farmers, etc.

Major chicken producer

I am sure that, as with any industry, stronger incentives and support from the government could boost the poultry sector and make the Philippines a major chicken producer.

But the poultry sector is just one.

Moving forward, stronger support is really needed for the whole Philippine agriculture sector, especially in modernizing processes and incentivizing farmers, fisherfolk, and livestock producers.

As the World Bank said recently, government interventions such as cooperative farming schemes, e-commerce, and investments in agribusiness start-ups could further advance modernization of Philippine agriculture.

I strongly believe that having a vibrant and modern agriculture sector will speed up the country’s recovery from the onslaught of COVID-19.

 

 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com



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