Great man, great ideas

By: Cielito F. Habito

The University of the Philippines recently honored one of the most accomplished men I’ve had the honor to work with. Dr. Emil Quinto Javier, National Scientist, former minister of science, University of the Philippines (UP) president, UP Los Baños chancellor and many more, was conferred the Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, by the UP in his home campus at Los Baños last Saturday.

The UP president and members of the Board of Regents were there, along with numerous other officials, colleagues, protegés, and friends who braved the resurging pandemic to witness the dignified — and yes, physically distanced — ceremony. Having recently turned an octogenarian, he looks anything but one. Being a nearby neighbor in Los Baños and fellow member in several bodies, I’ve witnessed first-hand how he still keeps a punishing schedule and workload. He is a consummate agriculturist by his heart, head, and hands — getting the last dirty in the soil as he tends a small farm of his own nearby. No one can be more credible in advising our agricultural policymakers, and he cannot but get the respectful ear he deserves from our top decision-makers in the sector.

But this piece is not about the man, but his wisdom, which he shared a generous dose of with his audience last weekend. And he did it by way of what first seemed a scathing censure of his very alma mater, where he has had multiple perspectives as a student, faculty member, administrator, and alumnus. Each role added clay to the masterpiece that “EQJ,” as he is known to associates, has evolved into through the years.

Painting a sobering picture of the sad state of Philippine agriculture today, he went on to hold UPLB responsible for the sorry state of this sector that has been host to most of the Filipino poor. My immediate mental reaction was to dispute liability on the part of UPLB, believing that UPLB had in fact not been listened to enough by the politicians and some less-than-honest officials who have managed our farm and fisheries sector over decades of lackluster performance. I had come to my own conclusion long ago that the problem with our agriculture lies not in lack of capability to make it thrive through using the right knowledge and practice, but rather, in various persons and institutions who have pushed the sector in wrong directions. How else could we have ended up trailing far behind our neighbors whose pioneer agricultural scientists trained and studied with us at UPLB?

And this is where I began to see Doctor Javier’s point in saying that “we (at UPLB) were part of the problem.” As he listed six areas of reform UPLB must pursue, his first item immediately resonated with me: UPLB must build strength in the long-undervalued social sciences — economics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology included — and their crucial application to agricultural policy and governance. He recalled how the late great Dr. Gelia Castillo, National Scientist in Sociology, had once lamented that social scientists were “second-class citizens in a world-class university” that UPLB is — and he noted that they appear to remain so today. “It is about time to recognize… that the greater challenges in our agriculture are not so much the agri part but the culture dimension…. In fact, the bigger and more problematic part of our challenges in agriculture had to do with governance and social conflict.” Touché.

UPLB’s new chancellor, Dr. Jose V. Camacho, is a social scientist (and economist) who could very well spearhead the needed change.

Doctor Javier also called on UPLB to (1) elaborate schemes to consolidate our small farmholdings into larger, more efficient and viable operating units; (2) reorient focus from production to value chains, including farm export diversification; (3) enhance efforts in value-adding and food and beverage manufacturing; (4) manage the trade-offs between farm intensification and care of the environment; and (5) pursue new disruptive technologies, but biased to especially benefit small farmers. Until the country’s premier university becomes the vanguard in pursuing such change, outcomes in our most inclusive economic sector will continue to mirror its own sins of omission.

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