Interview: Senator Cynthia A Villar

What efforts have been undertaken to diversify and modernise agricultural production?

SENATOR CYNTHIA A VILLAR: According to a study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, our agriculture sector is not competitive because of a lack of mechanisation and socialised credit. To help remedy this problem, the Philippine government has allocated P500m ($11.1m) to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority budget, so that it can provide 45,000 scholarships for agriculture-related courses. Farmers and their children will be taught new and profitable agriculture models, and will receive valuable training in entrepreneurship. We are also teaching farm business courses to Filipino farmers through the Agricultural Training Institute based on a module developed by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

There are various innovative ways to improve the performance of Philippine agriculture. An excellent example is through the use of creative farming alternatives. In coconut farming, for instance, inter-cropping should become widespread, as farmers should not depend on coconuts alone. Farmers are learning to plant other high-value crops under coconut trees such as cacao, coffee and corn. They can also raise livestock and poultry on the side, to increase their income potential. Farmers learned the importance of inter-cropping the hard way when super typhoon Yolanda destroyed an estimated 33m coconut trees. It created a long-term crisis, as it takes between six and eight years for a coconut tree to grow and become productive and profitable again.

What role will the halal bill play in positioning the Philippines as a competitive production base in Asia for sharia compliant producers?

VILLAR: The passing of the Philippine Halal Export Development and Promotion Act of 2015 is important because our halal exports will meet acceptable international accreditation standards. It is critical that we are able to export accredited halal products before the start of regional integration in December 2015, as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) includes many Muslim countries. The halal food industry is growing rapidly across the globe and we should seize those opportunities. There are an estimated 2bn Muslim consumers abroad, while there is a growing demand for halal products among non-Muslims too. The global halal market is estimated to be worth $2.3trn, and halal food producers in the Philippines are well-positioned to corner the majority of the global market through compliance with international standards and by instituting a halal system for food and non-food products or services.

How will the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) award, along with the upcoming ASEAN integration, impact agricultural exports?

VILLAR: The awarding of GSP+ by the EU enables us to export 6000 products to 28 EU countries with zero tariffs. It gives us a significant advantage, since we are the only Asian country granted GSP+. This will give us a competitive edge, especially with the start of regional economic integration under the AEC in December 2015. It will also provide a big boost to the agricultural sector because products that will greatly benefit include coconut, pineapple and tuna among other crops and marine products. It came after the lifting of the “yellow flag” on Philippine fish exports to the EU, after we passed the amendment to the Fisheries Law of 1998, where we imposed heavy penalties against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Currently our fisheries export P9.5bn ($210.9m) to the EU. A study by the Department of Trade and Industry predicts exports under the GSP+ will increase by €611.8m during the first three years. It will also create more than 250,000 jobs in both the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, with the majority of these jobs being generated in rural areas.