“Walang tubig, walang pagkain, o eh di magsayaw na lang tayo.”
(Temptation Island, 1980)
“No food, no water, we might as well dance.” So goes the famous line (one of many) from Temptation Island, Joey Gosiengfiao’s camp classic about a group of beauty pageant contestants and their escorts who get stuck on an island. I’ve used this quote in my column before, and it’s distressing that I’m having to use it again because no one likes recycling jokes and more importantly, because it’s still relevant.
As food prices continue (or threaten) to rise even as El Niño encroaches, one begins to wonder, will things ever change?
It seems that we’ve been hearing the same complaints in the agriculture sector for decades, with nothing done to solve any of them: the continuing rise in food prices, a lack of irrigation systems, a lack of technology transfer and machination, a lack of financial literacy in smallholder farmers, an over dependence on importation, a lack of post-harvest facilities and farm to market roads, rampant corruption, an over dependence on and the oversimplification (and resulting sometimes erroneous vilification) of the role of middlemen, the abuse of smallholder farmers and farm tenants, and so on and so forth.
I’ve been hearing these things and more ever since I was a child, and it’s sad to realize that things haven’t changed, and in fact might be getting worse. Age hasn’t given me any insight to possible solutions, only nuances to how deeply entrenched and systemic the roots of these problems go. I can only imagine how industry veterans, particularly marginalized farmers, feel about a system that seems to be repeatedly failing them. Given these circumstances, one cannot blame them for urging their children to avoid the sector altogether.
While it’s true that one can make money in agriculture, whether it’s by running a farm business or an agriculture-based enterprise, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Working in agriculture, where one is so tied to the land and where a particularly strong typhoon or a slight rise in the price of feed or fertilizer can mean a significant loss, requires a high tolerance for risk, something less and less people have the capability for in an increasingly unstable world. Unfortunately, everyone needs to eat. Also unfortunately, the global population continues to rise despite a worldwide decrease in agriculture professionals.
And it’s not like we don’t have access to possible solutions. Every year, we see reports and recommendations on how to solve certain problems. We have roadmaps and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) for different crops and livestock. We have local and international academic and NGO studies and reports on highly specific challenges within the industry. We have the testimonies of small farmers and big agribusiness people on their various experiences. And yet nothing seems to have been put into practice.
That everyone agrees that the roots of the industry’s numerous and varied problems are systemic implies that there are many people within the system who are profiting from it too much to want it to change, even if this means depriving their fellow citizens of a decent way of life and endangering the whole population by way of food scarcity and national food insecurity due to rising prices and lack of supply.
It’s my hope that the next generation inherits an agriculture sector that’s robust, competitive, profitable, pro-farmer, sustainable, and food secure. I’m also hoping that Ms. Manila Sunshine contestant Azenith Tobias’ famous words don’t have to be quoted in an agricultural context anymore, but given the circumstances, I’m not going to hold my breath.