Learning from Masagana 99 lessons

President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. faces the daunting task of averting a looming food crisis in the country brought about by inflation and the continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

For the first time in Philippine history, the President himself is heading the Department of Agriculture (DA) — acknowledging the problem and sending a message that he’s personally invested in solving it.

Setting aside, for a moment, the ongoing controversy of whether or not there’s a real need to import sugar, it would be prudent for Marcos and his advisers to find ways of boosting production of a Filipino food staple: Rice.

At his inaugural address on 30 June, Marcos mentioned reviving Masagana 99 — an agricultural program developed in 1973 by his father, then President Ferdinand E. Marcos, to solve, at that time, a worsening rice shortage.

The program’s name was the Filipino word for “bountiful” (masagana) and the target number of cavans (99) per hectare of rice.

What happened to Masagana 99 was discussed in a webinar on 25 September 2020, on the occasion of the University of Los Baños’ (UPLB) 102nd Loyalty Day, organized by the UP College of Agriculture Class of 1960.

Among the participants were agriculturists, scientists, and other members of the program.

As a backgrounder, Dr. Edgardo Quisumbing, then deputy head of the program, recalled that Masagana 99 was an emergency response to the rice shortage caused by pests and calamities.

The proposed solution was a technology package for farmers: High-yielding rice varieties, low-cost pesticides and fertilizers, and a credit line for the farmers to avail of the program.

The aim was to increase rice harvest per hectare, said Dr. Santiago Obien, founding executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute and current National Rice Program senior technical adviser.

However, the problem was, the farmers initially didn’t trust the government, said former Agriculture Sec. Domingo Panganiban, at the time a field-level implementer of the program.

Compounding the problem was that the credit program became “problematic.” The participating rural banks granted the loans to the farmers. Payment for the loans, said veteran rural banker Jose Lustre, “gradually dropped from 90 percent to 35 percent and lower” — until only 3.7 percent of the farmers were availing themselves of the credit line.

In addition, pesticides harmed the environment, and trained personnel dropped out of the program.

The program “collapsed,” recounted Panganiban. The farmer was left out of the picture and technicians were replaced with “non-agriculturists.”

By 1984, mounting debts of the farmers led officials to discontinue the program.

In short, what started as a plan with noble intentions was good for 10 years but ended up badly due to mistrust from the beneficiaries, environmentally unsound methods and an inefficient financial scheme.

It goes without saying that Marcos’ DA lieutenants should, by now, have learned from the lessons of Masagana 99. The new plan, according to media reports, is Masagana 150 — still based on the method of increasing rice yield from the current 60 cavans per hectare.

How to implement it is another story.

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