By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

CHEAPER FOOD, more jobs, and a continued focus on infrastructure were among President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s promises when he ran in the 2022 presidential election. He urged migrant workers to return and help rebuild the economy.

Mr. Marcos’ landslide victory has been attributed to “nostalgia” for the days when his father, Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr., ran the country, though the tail end of the latter’s rule was marked by an economy in collapse.

The younger Mr. Marcos signaled in calling for food self-sufficiency a turn in a decidedly populist direction, a policy choice which he is well-placed to implement after appointing himself Agriculture Secretary. It follows that much of his attention will be occupied by farming matters early in his term. How must he go about achieving his goals?

To limit food imports “as much as possible,” Mr. Marcos needs to ensure that new jobs in the agriculture and food sector are created while improving the lot of the farmers and workers in those industries, according to Roy S. Kempis, a retired professor at the Pampanga State Agricultural University. 

“To overcome food shortages in the Philippines, we need import substitution and food sufficiency measures,” Mr. Kempis said, adding that this starts with boosting the agricultural production workforce.

The imperative to create and improve jobs must operate side-by-side with the need to modernize the industry, which means the jobs should be heavily weighted towards higher-value occupations like equipment operators and, ideally, jobs with more technology content to harness whatever the sciences have to offer in improving yields and making crops more resilient, he said.

This is in keeping with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) call to governments to invest heavily in sustainable agricultural mechanization, long neglected in developing countries.

The FAO said increasing mechanization levels does not necessarily mean big investments in machinery, noting that farmers just need to “choose the most appropriate power source for any operation depending on the work to be done and on who is performing it.” 

“The level of mechanization should meet their needs effectively and efficiently,” it said.

Mr. Kempis said the push for modernization, as promised by Mr. Marcos, will require a review of the agriculture curriculum in schools to ensure that students and their teachers are ready to meet the challenges faced by the industry. Future jobs are likely to include machinery operators guided by global positioning systems (GPS) in land preparation, irrigation, fertilizer application and harvesting.

“We need teachers and trainers who are also practitioners,” he said. “We need fair wages or salaries for these teachers and trainers.”

The President’s self-sufficiency goals over the long term will build the agriculture value chain and generate more jobs in related industries, according to Ayn G. Torres, an agricultural economist and researcher.

“If indeed a significant increase in agricultural labor is expected, other sectors will follow suit,” she said.

Ms. Torres said migration of workers to areas where the demand for agriculture and food jobs is high may be expected.

The government needs to ensure that labor supply is sufficient and that equilibrium in the labor market is maintained, she added.

“If agri labor is to be increased, from what other sector do we anticipate the shift to come — services or industry?” she said. “What is the target and the optimal balance of employment to labor output for the economy?”

“Are we prepared to increase minimum wages for the agriculture sector, which have historically been way below the minimum?”

She said the new administration will face decades-old challenges confronting agriculture, which she said has been stunted by low wages and declining productivity.

These point to the need to draft a roadmap for the entire agriculture value chain, which should address the labor aspect, Ms. Torres said.

“Despite many claiming that the Philippines is an agricultural country, we can observe in the past decades since the late 1980s that in terms of labor and output, other sectors have overtaken the agriculture sector,” she said.

Employment in the agriculture sector was reported at 22.52% as of May, against 59% for the services sector.

“There are many factors for the low employment rate in agriculture and one of them is the low minimum wage,” Ms. Torres said.

In 2019, farm workers received wages averaging P331.10 per day, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

“Labor productivity in agriculture has also been very low, in contrast with industry where despite a small share of workers, contributes greatly to gross domestic product (GDP),” Ms. Torres said.

These problems are “compounded by the fact that those who venture into small- and medium-scale businesses have very few incentives,” she said. “In order to address agricultural labor, the root cause — (the lack of support for) investment — should also be addressed.”

BEYOND AGRICULTUREMr. Marcos, 64, has also pledged to address the climate crisis by increasing the Philippines’ investments in renewables.

Mr. Kempis said that the administration needs to fulfill this promise “to overcome power outages” in agricultural areas badly hit by typhoons. “We need to substitute costly fossil fuel-based crude oil and dirty coal with accessible and renewable energy sources.”

Mr. Kempis said the green promise could mean more jobs in the clean energy sector — ranging from crews installing components of solar panels, controllers of battery storage systems, and workers building facilities tapping alternative energy sources.

Mr. Marcos has also promised to pursue an infrastructure program that will benefit farmers.

This could mean additional farm-to-market roads, irrigation facilities, flood barriers, and sewer and energy transmission lines.

Terry L. Ridon, convenor of InfraWatchPH, said the government needs to increase wages and benefits in the infrastructure sector to attract more talent to engineering and construction.

“Due to this very wide wage gap, we are losing them to other countries which can pay more than double local wages,” he said.

The government has signaled a shift to public-private partnerships (PPPs) in infrastructure development, which economists have welcomed.

In its transition report, the previous Agriculture leadership asked the new administration to award big infrastructure projects, including irrigation works, to the private sector.

“More PPPs should certainly generate more jobs for ordinary Filipinos, but this is dependent on how fast PPPs are greenlighted by the current government while ensuring social and environmental safeguards,” Mr. Ridon said. “There can be no massive job generation in PPPs until the last government approval has been secured.”

“The government can adopt the initiatives of the private sector to create new areas of study to support the country’s infrastructure push.”

Mr. Ridon said job creation in the infrastructure sector depends largely on how efficient the government is in implementing projects, citing underspending as a key risk.