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Tiu Jr.’s appointment as DA chief: Tested competence or ‘payback’?

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Newly appointed Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Franciso “Kiko” Tiu Laurel Jr. will be facing an uphill battle in trying to level off high food prices and reach the expectations of his predecessor President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. himself.

Last Friday, Marcos finally announced the appointment of Laurel, a food business tycoon and one of his top campaign donors in the 2022 polls, at a news conference in Malacañang.

Agriculture expert

The chief executive said he decided to turnover the leadership of DA, which he held for over a year, since he is confident in the capability of Laurel to address the “complicated” issues in the agriculture sector.

“We have found somebody who understands very well the problems that agriculture is facing and the reason for the timing,” Marcos said.

He said Laurel, whom he has known since his childhood, has established a strong presence in the agriculture sector as President of Frabelle Group of Companies (FGC) and a member of the Private Sector Advisory Council (PSAC) agriculture sector.

The FGC is engaged in fishing, aquaculture, canning, food manufacturing, and processing, food importation, cold storage, real estate and power generation.

“He knows and is close to those called experts professionals [in the sector], which he can easily approach, who can help give solutions to our problems in agriculture,” Marcos said.

Laurel graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in computer science.

Pricey food

Foremost of the said issues, he said, which wants Laurel to prioritize are the high prices of agricultural commodities.

Since the President served as the concurrent secretary of the DA last year the prices of onion, sugar and rice, and recently potatoes suffered a price spike.

“We need to control [food prices] and see what we can do,” Marcos said.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported the food inflation shoot up last September after rice prices accelerated 17.9 percent from 8.7 percent in the previous month.

This despite the price cap Marcos imposed for regular milled rice and well-milled rice during the said period.

The Chief Executive attributed the surge in the prices of rice, onions, and sugar to price manipulation by food smugglers and hoarders.

To resolve the matter, DA under the leadership of Laurel is eyeing to reduce the country’s reliance on imports by boosting local farm production through mechanization and emulating the best agriculture practices of other countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

“The key [to addressing this problem] is the modernization of the agriculture sector and [improving] the welfare of our farmers and fisherfolk,” Laurel said.

Other challenges

Laurel was also tasked by the President to stop the spread of animal diseases such as the Avian Flu and African swine fever, which have caused millions of financial losses in the poultry and livestock industry, respectively.

DA is currently eyeing to secure the necessary vaccines to stop the spread of both diseases.

Marcos said he also wants the new DA chief to deal with the impact of climate change to agriculture.

Last March, the Climate Change Commission announced the government would be using $39.3 million to provide farmers with data and low emission technologies.

Laurel said he would disclose his plans to achieve the demands set by Marcos in the coming days.

Credibility issues

In a message, Ateneo School of Government Dean Randy P. Tuaño told the BusinessMirror that the appointment of an industry player as the new head of DA was an expected development.

He also noted no less than agriculture stakeholders have been calling for an appointment of a “full-time” secretary in DA, who knows the industry.

“Traditionally, the President has appointed someone from the business sector as the Agriculture department secretary, so President Marcos has not broken this trend,” Tuaño said.

Tuaño, however, pointed out Laurel will face challenges in to his credibility as the new head of DA early, which include allegation that his appointment was “payback” for his P30-million campaign contribution to Marcos’ presidential bid.

“That’s an issue that the President and Mr. Tiu Laurel would need to address early on,” Tuaño said.

He also said the business tycoon must divest from his business interests to preserve the credibility of his leadership in DA.

“Mr. Tiu Laurel would need to divest from his business interests and also from his other professional associations before he begins as secretary. He would need to resign from the Private Sector Advisory Council as well,” Tuaño suggested.

Presidential Communications Office Secretary Cheloy V. Garafil said Laurel already divested his interests from his companies.

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