POSTSCRIPT / November 17, 2020 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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When the shepherd embraces his flock

POPE Francis tweeted on Sunday: “I am near in prayer to the dear people of the Philippines who are suffering because of the destruction, and especially because of the flooding caused by a strong typhoon. I express my solidarity to the poorest families and those who are doing all they can to help them.”

The Pope’s reaching out reminds us of his flying to Tacloban on Jan. 17, 2015, to say mass for an estimated 160,000 devotees, some of them weeping, huddled before a makeshift altar near the airport whipped by stormy winds and rain.

Saying mass with a yellow plastic poncho over his vestments, the Holy Father comforted the survivors of category-5 typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that killed about 6,300 people 14 months earlier in that general Visayan area.

“I would like to tell you something close to my heart,” Francis said, putting aside his prepared homily, “When I saw from Rome that catastrophe, I felt I had to be here. On those very days I decided to come here. I am here to be with you. Perhaps a little late, I have to say, but I am here.”

More than his words, there was the powerful message of the Pontiff’s presence, of his being with those in distress.

The world saw on TV the moving picture of the shepherd embracing his troubled flock. This is the same message of empathy that many sectors have been reiterating, some in social media, after two successive storms ravaged an utterly unprepared Luzon.

The Pope’s tweet, sent after praying the noonday Angelus with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, reflected the views of Filipino prelates stressing the need for more government assistance.

Fr. Antonio Labiao, Caritas Philippines executive director, said: “We urge our government to seek help from the international community. We cannot do this alone. It is imperative that we leave no one behind. Let us all help each other. Let us save everyone. Every second counts. Every life matters.”

On Sunday also, President Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo visited separately the areas devastated by typhoon “Ulysses”. The storm left at least 67 dead, displaced thousands, and destroyed billions of pesos worth of public structures, private properties, and crops.

The two top leaders went around – the President meeting officials and viewing from the air the flooded areas, and the Vice President distributing relief goods and talking to victims on the ground – but their paths did not cross.

Meeting Cabinet members and local officials in Tuguegarao, the President said: “I assure our fellowmen here that the government will continue its rescue operations until all families are saved, all casualties and missing persons have been accounted for, and all affected individuals and communities have received relief and other assistance.

“To my countrymen here in Cagayan Valley, rest assured we are working hard to rebuild your lives after these calamities. We know your anguish and we will respond with urgency.”

Robredo was in Cagayan hours before Duterte. “This is not a race,” she said when a reporter noted that she arrived ahead of the President. She and her team have been helping calamity victims since Friday after Ulysses struck Nov. 11.

On Twitter, which during the early hours of the emergency was the key communication link, Robredo reported: “We arrived Cagayan this morning. Our team arrived a few hours earlier with supplies. Situation is so much better. Many areas still flooded but water receded already.”

The Vice President added that her team, which draws largely from donations, would continue its relief operations in Cagayan and Isabela.

 Need for food security stressed

FOOD security is vital to any nation. That means, as much as possible, being self-sufficient and able to produce enough to feed a growing population today and in the foreseeable future.

Sadly, this is not the case for the Philippines. This is perplexing considering the country’s rich natural resources and agricultural base. Yet the country remains a big importer of food—not only manufactured but also fresh, raw and frozen foods.

One would think that, being among the world’s biggest consumers of rice, Filipinos would be at least self-sufficient in the cereal.

But that’s not the case. The Philippines has been importing rice for decades. It also imports huge amounts of meat, vegetables, fruits, and canned goods. Even galunggong is being imported at times.

Agriculture accounts for less than 10 percent of the gross domestic product—and that share has been shrinking in recent years. The economy is now 60-percent service and its biggest export is the Filipino worker.

This situation worries leaders in the agriculture and food sector—especially in the light of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, aggravated by the damage inflicted by typhoons, floods, and occasional bouts of animal diseases such as the African swine flu.

Leaders in the agriculture and food sector urge government to craft an agricultural recovery plan that factors in cooperation among the government, industry stakeholders, and the agribusiness sector.

This consensus emerged in a recent virtual town hall meeting on strengthening the food supply chain organized by policy think tank Stratbase ADR Institute. Participants said recovery requires a strong synergy among the government, agriculture and the manufacturing sector.

They called for “more balanced importation to let the local supply sustain the local demand,” even as they noted that the “go local, buy local” campaign has been gaining momentum.

Dindo Manhit, Stratbase ADRi president, underscored the need to promote an agricultural cycle marked by an efficient flow of food and related products.

He said buying local food products will boost the production cycle, increase yield and food availability and access, leading to a more balanced supply of locally produced and imported food and agricultural items.

Even as Agriculture Undersecretary Ariel Cayanan said the government policy is for importation to be the last resort, Rex Aggarado speaking for the Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. appealed to the government to impose a cap on selected canned products.

Nikki Garcia, president of the Philippine Association of Feed Millers Inc., called for a balance between exportation and importation. A recalibrated policy, she said, would facilitate agricultural recovery, operations, and production systems.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 17, 2020)

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