JUST when prices of rice and other agricultural commodities have become volatile, not just because of climate change and logistical disruptions resulting from the Ukraine war but from such unexpected dements as an Indian ban on some of its rice exports, we have the most dysfunctional department in the country — the Agriculture department.
The blame is solely on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., although he can easily move to restore the department’s effectiveness by doing what he should have done on Day 1 of his presidency, which is to appoint a qualified technocrat, preferably with political skills, as a full-time Agriculture secretary.
Instead, he appointed himself as concurrent Agriculture secretary, which, as expected, in effect meant that the department was leaderless. In the 14 months that he has been Agriculture secretary, he has visited the department only four times and has reportedly met with its undersecretaries and other officials three times. What has he been thinking?
It is a mystery why Marcos has been adamant about keeping the agriculture portfolio, even though it is so obvious he is unable to run it, especially at this crucial period when prices of rice and even vegetables are so volatile that a tight running of the department is necessary. While he was governor and vice governor of a dominantly agricultural province for 12 years, he has never shown any expertise or interest in agricultural issues. Marcos’ insistence borders on political suicide as the department not only faces daunting challenges because of decades of neglect and mismanagement; it is also viewed as an Augean stable of corruption.
While little noticed by the metropolitan elite and media, the Agricultural department is one of our most important government economic institutions, as its nationwide staff, especially of what are called agriculture “extension workers,” are our farmers main link to state assistance and to modern farming technology.
The fact that 19 percent of our rice consumption is imports depends on many factors, among them the reduction in both rice hectarage and the number of rice farmers. But other countries have also been hit by such factors, which means that our Agriculture department has failed the nation. Yet Marcos insists on running it on an absentee basis.
The only credible explanation before was that he was reserving the post for an ally who ran in the 2022 elections and had to wait for the one-year ban on such appointments to end. But the ban ended May 10, 2023, four months ago, and there isn’t even the whiff of a rumor that Marcos would finally give the post to somebody.
It happens in all organizations, in clubs and kingdoms: an absentee head creates factions competing with each other, making the organization dysfunctional.
In August 2022, Marcos took out from retirement (and part-time basketball coaching) the 84-year-old Domingo Panganiban, who had been close to his father and had served as Agriculture secretary in the administrations of Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and made him Agriculture senior undersecretary. The “senior” appellation meant he was primus inter pares among the seven undersecretaries there, although mischievous talk in the department is that it should remind everyone of the official’s weaknesses that usually come with age.
Last February, however, Marcos appointed Leocadio Sebastian as “undersecretary for rice industry development,” a newly minted post that meant he was in charge of what is the most important commodity the department was in charge of — rice. Just last December 2022, Malacañang cleared Sebastian, lifting his suspension status, of charges that he ordered the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar without the President’s approval last year. It still isn’t clear why he did that unauthorized importation.
As a result of Sebastian’s designation, two factions have emerged in the department, one led by Panganiban, who controls the purse and the department’s bureaucracy, and the other by Sebastian, who heads its agencies involved in some way with the rice sector, including the National Food Authority and the National Irrigation Administration.
Panganiban appears to have defied Sebastian’s turf as he successfully recommended to Marcos the recent price cap on rice, supported by the undersecretary for policy, planning and research, Mercy Sombilla, who is under him. Indeed, the two officials contradicted each other in the hearings in Congress.
“Our rice stocks are enough for the next few months; we’re also in the middle of the planting season, and we’re expecting harvest by August and September,” said Sebastian in a public briefing last August 3.
A few weeks later, Sombilla told a House committee that the country was experiencing a rice shortage amid an insufficient buffer stock, “as the total stock is pegged at 39 days in August and 44 days in September compared to the 60- to 90-day buffer stock needed.”
As if two factions were not enough, Marcos appointed in July a third undersecretary, Victorino Savellano. While his designation is “undersecretary for livestock,” Savellano could turn out to be the most powerful official in the department as he has Marcos’ ear, both having served in Congress and having been involved in local offices and politics.
Savellano was a two-term governor of Ilocos Sur (Ilocos Norte, in the case of Marcos), represented that province’s first district from 2016 to 2022, and was a deputy speaker from 2019 to 2022. Savellano has a political clout and network that the two other undersecretaries can only dream of. Savellano is a veteran politician; if he wills it, he could eat the two undersecretaries for breakfast.
Savellano may be officially in charge of the department’s work involving cows, pigs and chickens, yet obviously he would be the real Marcos proxy at the department, who may even replace him, which certainly would be very good for the country. Marcos as Agriculture secretary for 14 months now has been an unmitigated disaster. His value added to the department has been zero, or even negative. That this very obvious fact is hardly being raised by opinion writers is a testament to this administration’s power over media.
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