MAJOR problems afflict Philippine agriculture, which needs more attention from those who hope to be part of the next government. This campaign season, we hope to hear from better platforms for this sector. Candidates so far have offered mostly general statements such as promises to help farmers. Others, meanwhile, propose protectionist policies that would harm the country. And as usual, few details mention.

One problem is low productivity. About half of the population lives in rural areas, yet agriculture accounts for only 9.4% of the total economy or gross domestic product.

With that, perhaps more public spending is needed for infrastructure such as irrigation systems, farm-to-market roads, and post-harvest facilities. The government should also allocate more funds to research and development (R&D) projects of colleges and universities with agricultural programs.

In addition, the next government should strengthen agricultural cooperatives. Land reform fragmented the sector and this well-intentioned policy of helping farmers become landowners undermined their competitiveness. With small batches, farmers cannot achieve economies of scale.

Working together as a group can be a remedy for this. But for their cooperatives to succeed, farmers need management training and other professional skills to handle finance, marketing and even R&D.

Meanwhile, the next government should resist protectionist policies. Restricting or limiting imports will be detrimental in the long run because farmers are not forced to innovate or become more efficient. Moreover, consumers will end up paying more for products that are not necessarily of higher quality.

Of course, we all need to help farmers because of their vital role in society. But this requires being selective in which agricultural activities to pursue or support. The government should only support efforts that give Filipino farmers a comparative advantage. Meanwhile, safety nets should be targeted to help those in inefficient parts of the industry move on to more lucrative ones.

Finally, the next government should spend more on agriculture. At a recent virtual forum, hosted by the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, Federico Pascual, president of the Management Association of the Philippines, said the country’s allocation to agriculture is only 1.7% of the national budget. Other Southeast Asian countries devote a larger share to their agricultural expenditures.

hard life

The next government should also resist populist measures such as grants to farmers. The amounts to be granted risk being insufficient and unsustainable over time.

Surely there are better ways to help farmers. Life for them is so hard that many discourage their children from going into farming as well. This is supported by declining enrollment in agriculture and related programs offered by state colleges and universities across the country.

There are now more lucrative and less physically demanding career opportunities for the next generation. Many of them also choose to accept labor-intensive job opportunities abroad because of higher pay.

The downside of these employment options is that the pool of Filipino farmers is being depleted. In other words, our farmers are aging. According to reports, their average age ranges from 57 to 59 years old. In contrast, the Philippines has a young population with a median age of around 25 years old.

Related to this, Agriculture Department Secretary William Dar warned last year that the Philippines could face a critical shortage of farmers in about 12 years. This may be alarming, but it doesn’t seem to capture the public’s attention. The shortage does not seem to be of sufficient concern to incumbents and candidates in the upcoming elections.

Although we are for the liberalization of trade, this cannot replace the entire agricultural sector. Its deterioration harms most of the poor, who live in rural areas, and undermines food security for the entire country.

Even some crops without comparative advantage, particularly rice, may deserve some degree of political protection because of their strategic value. But in general, economic policies must take into account comparative advantages and national interests.

As such, agriculture deserves to be talked about in a meaningful way this campaign season. And for impact, candidates should spare us the platitudes.