(STAR) HIDDEN AGENDA By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes - With the proverbial political pot heating up in the wake of the forthcoming May polls, our coffee shop gang expressed fear that a lot of the really crucial issues in the country might get buried underneath the rubble of often-destructive political demagoguery.

But everyone around the coffee table agrees that this periodic election ritual is crucial, never mind that exercise tends to resemble a circus rather than a serious debate on the nationís destiny. The election frenzy, our cappuccino comrades say, does fill the need for a collective release of pent-up frustrations. Unfortunately, some urgent national concerns may have to give way to campaign themes.

One important concern that will probably take a backseat would be the issue of food sufficiency and security. The concern of many sectors is that the threat of the opposition to make the elections a "referendum" on President Arroyo could mean training the national focus on the "juicy" issues, such as the much-ballyhooed German bank account, the "Hello, Garci" tapes and other similarly emotional topics.

Our coffee pals say we can expect the Presidentís advisers to be busy parrying the propaganda. We hope they could still find time to address the truly urgent national concerns such as the eradication of poverty and hunger.

One administration official whom we hope could keep his focus during the hot campaign months is Agriculture Secretary Art Yap. Coffee shop circles are of the consensus that Sec. Art is one of the handful of cabinet men who managed to produce positive results in his area of responsibility outside mediaís radar screen.

Agriculture sector observers say Sec. Art has adopted a no-nonsense approach to his mission, a posture that augurs well for the food sector. They noted that without fanfare, Sec. Art seems to have taken the "hunger" issue personally. While other government officials swear Sec. Art does is not entertaining the illusion that the answer to the hunger problem is in the hands of the agriculture sector alone, they say Sec. Art "is moving heaven and earth" to win the first round in the battle against the malady.

"Hunger" is an issue that requires a synchronized multi-sector national response. But Sec. Artís department is inevitably at the forefront. To give "hunger" a fatal blow, the country has to create jobs, up purchasing power, and keep investments flowing into local businesses and industries. This means everybody getting into the act. "Hunger" cannot be licked by one sector alone.

But Sec. Art has the vital mission to take care of the basics: helping make sure that farmers and fishermen produce abundant food and making sure their produce reach the end-consumers at prices the latter can afford.

Our coffee pals point out that abundance and affordability have to be Sec. Artís battle-cry. But affordability appears to be receiving special attention from the agriculture chief nowadays. Perhaps this is because the agriculture sector has been enjoying a rebound recently . The challenge today is not so much producing more but making sure the abundance lands in the table of ordinary Filipinos.

Sec. Art describes his task in clear terms: "The nascent rebound of the farm sector which grew nearly five percent in the yearís (2006) first three quarters, would have no direct effect on ordinary consumers unless we find ways of lowering the cost of taking these goods to them".

We are heartened to note that the battle-cry has concrete expressions. Sec. Art has used some innovative moves to bring food closer to underprivileged consumers are prices that are moving closer to the "reasonably affordable" range. The Barangay Food Terminal program which Sec. Art recently launched stands a good chance of lowering the costs of basic food items like rice, meat and vegetables. This could replicate the relative success of the government-assisted but private sector-led "Tindahan Natin" concept.

Our coffee shop gang believes the whole idea behind Sec. Artís move is to help the poor sector get better access to the abundance of our farms and marine resources. Sec. Art is right: the abundance is meaningless unless it fills the tables of the marginalized.

In a way, Sec. Art may have redefined "hunger" based on his current approach: it is not so much the absence of food but merely the lack of access to food that people can afford. Bring food closer to them and help them buy food at prices they can afford and we reduce the incidence of "hunger".

Sec. Artís mission and moves are laudable. But the guy canít wage this battle alone. We hope the senatorial candidates would present to us a clear and viable vision and legislative agenda to address the hunger issue. While we recognize that political issues serve their palliative and cathartic purposes, we do pray that we can hear hope-inspiring messages from the next batch of senatorial wannabes that deal directly with the subject matter closest to our stomach : hunger.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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