(Photo courtesy of DA-PhilRice)

MANILA – The chair of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday said the country's agricultural sector still needs "infusions" of domestic and public investment to compete effectively even as the world's largest free trade pact took effect for most of the 15 member countries at the start of this year.

Albay Representative Joey Salceda said the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement would create benefits for key industrial sectors, as it would simplify customs and trade procedures among member countries and help facilitate trade and economic exchange.

“I’m a fan of global trade. Just ask the many hundreds of thousands of Filipino seafarers who have found employment in carrying trade in goods. Or the many workers in export-oriented enterprises. Trade also appears to have a positive link with tourism, which remains a key Philippine industry despite the pandemic. So, I don’t deny the benefits that RCEP could provide,” Salceda said.

He, however, pointed out that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has to formulate a plan for market access to Philippine goods, especially agricultural goods, in order to develop a competitive farming sector.

"I have always insisted on the role of the DTI as market facilitator for Philippine agriculture. We also have to invest in crops where we possess some comparative advantages. Some provinces can compete in rice and corn, but we should also invest in our traditional crop exports of coconut, bananas, pineapples, and abaca, to ensure that we can expand markets for these products," he said.

He also stressed the need to review the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF) to see whether current programs are resulting in higher yields or cheaper production costs.

“A periodic review is probably due and is also mandated by law. I would like to see the impact of ACEF on crop competitiveness while we discuss ratifying RCEP," he said.

He said protecting agriculture while opening other sectors is not new, noting that even European countries in the supposedly free trade zone of the European Union impose heavy protections on agriculture.

He said it is also a labor issue because the country has more farmers as a share of the labor force than agriculture contributes as a share of the economy.

“So, ultimately, the two concerns that we have to discuss as we ratify RCEP are: do we have the necessary mitigating measures to protect farmers from the downsides of global trade and are our industries prepared to take in displaced farm work? If the answer to both is yes, then RCEP excellent opportunity that we should not miss,” Salceda said. (PNA)