Cherrie Atilano is the Founding Farmer and CEO of AGREA Agricultural Systems, an innovative, inclusive, for-purpose agri-business enterprise anchored on an Ecology of Dignity: sustainable agriculture, fair-trade, and a replicable model of an agri-based economy. She is currently an Ambassador of Food Security at the Department of Agriculture. In 2018, she was awarded one of The Outstanding Young Men and Women (TOYM) of the Philippines, and in 2020 she was also awarded Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. Most recently, she was recognized at the Mansmith Young Market Masters Awards (YMMA) in 2021. In this interview, she shares her views about farming and agri-business in the Philippines.
Q1: What challenges have farmers been experiencing during the pandemic?
A1: Agriculture is a particularly hard-hit sector, not only because of the quarantine restrictions but also due to devastating typhoons. The lack of means to transport raw materials and manufactured goods has gravely disrupted farm and business operations, which set off a snowball effect on the country’s economic productivity. The restrictions placed on the movement of people and goods, were likely to have a significant impact on all levels of the agricultural market chain. Some farmers and fisherfolk reported difficulties in securing inputs owing to the closure of agro-trading shops. The closure of banks and non-operation by financiers also affected some farmers and fisherfolk. Across the supply chain, workers have had a difficult time reporting to the place of work, owing to local government units (LGU)-level quarantine regulations together with the suspension of public transport. Additionally the farmers, who themselves were elderly, were not allowed to go out of their houses. The farmers have faced the steepest challenges to recovery.
Q2: Why does the Philippines lack food security, have relatively low farm incomes, low rural employment, and declining farm productivity with insufficient agricultural competitiveness? What should be addressed?
A2: For the longest time, there is no comprehensive plan for the agriculture sector especially to the smallholder farmers who most of them still have no access to finance, farm inputs, technical know-how and market. The budget for agriculture sector is only 2% of the national budget which is very little compare to the budget allocated by our neighboring countries where they usually allocate 3-6%. The sector that is feeding 110Million Filipinos is one of the least budgeted sector in the country. Most of the local government units (LGUs) have no clear agriculture priorities for their localities, hence, most of the food producers both farmers and fishers are not supported in their production, adoption of latest farming technologies, better infrastructure and access to decent market. There is a need for continuous capacity building of our farmers, subsidize their farm inputs to lower the cost of production, build them with better infrastructures like irrigation and postharvest processing & storage, market linkage and low interest loans. Sustainable farming practices should also be introduced to reduce the impact to the environment, restore the health of the soil and diversify their cropping systems.
Q3: In 1960, agriculture was 64% of our total exports. Today, it is down to only 8% with shrinking tradability. What happened?
A3: It was due to the adoption of the Green Revolution in the 60’s that increased our productivity with solid market linkage globally. However, that Revolution was not sustained as it was also not good for our soil health. Excessive fertilization caused the soil to degrade and less production was achieved in the long run. During that time also, agriculture was given enough priorities in terms of budget and support from development banks. Additionally, land reform also happened where there was no comprehensive program for the beneficiaries on the onset like finance, training on agribusiness to utilize their small holdings, infrastructure and common service facilities support, access to market and worse is losing the economies of scale to be financially viable. Climate change has also affected our production wherein climate patterns changed drastically with 20-21 average typhoons visiting the Philippines every year.
Q4: 78% of farms in the Philippines are small at less than 3 hectares. Many from the next generation also do not want to be farmers. How are you making farming “cool” and “sexy” to appeal to more demographics?
A4: It has been an intentional effort to change the narrative of agriculture or farming to make it “cool” and “sexy” by focusing on agribusiness. Most people see farming as a one way ticket to poverty and drudgery, but it is the most essential business. Feeding people is the core business of farming. The moment we change the mindset of people especially the young ones from making farming as a hobby, for the older ones or retired hobby farmers; we need to see it as a money-making industry with great impact. An industry that is the foundation of other industries related to food, manufacturing and tourism.
Q5: What result are you proudest of in AGREA?
A5: Every time I go to the farming communities we work with, AGREA has become a verb not a noun anymore. Most farmers would say, “I – AGREA na natin sila, I – AGREA na natin yan” while referring to some farmers who are wanting to join the program and lands that are still unproductive. This is a brand that we built with great traction on the grassroots while being known also in the global scene in giving voices to the smallholder farmers who are indispensable in the food systems. AGREA has been showing the way how a grassroots enterprise is influencing policies, positioning farmers as change makers in both food and climate agenda and seeing themselves as the solutions of their own problems.
Josiah Go is the chairman and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. The search for the 17th Mansmith Young Market Masters Awards (YMMA) is ongoing. Forms are available at www.youngmarketmasters.com