By Madelaine B. Miraflor
NFA Council, which recently succumbed to pressure and allowed rice importation despite abundance in local harvest, decided to look into all import transactions of National Food Authority (NFA) to check why the agency keep running out of buffer stocks.
To recall, NFA Council recently gave in to the request of NFA to use its standby authority to import 250,000 metric tons (MT) of rice to replenish its buffer stocks, which had recently gone down to its lowest monthly level in 10 years.
At first, NFA Council rejected it, saying there is no rice shortage, but it eventually approved it on Monday after NFA Administrator Jason Aquino got President Rodrigo Duterte’s support for his importation plan.
Despite the approval, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, who chairs the NFA Council, insisted that there is “no rice shortage” and that the country, one of the world’s biggest rice buyers, currently has 3.8 million MT of rice supply as of this month, which is is enough to cover 121 days of national consumption.
The NFA Council even decided to time the delivery of the imported rice in June, just a few weeks before the lean season, even if the NFA supposedly wants it rushed.
Mercedita Sombilla, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment Staff, said on Monday that the NFA Council decided to conduct an audit on NFA “as soon as possible.”
“That was the resolution made [in the last NFA Council meeting]. [The audit covers] procurement and distribution of locally purchased and imported by NFA,” Sombilla said on Wednesday.
Agriculture undersecretary Ariel Cayanan, who attended the NFA Council as a resource person, said it was Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Deputy Governor Diwa Guinigundo who recommended to do such audit to look into all NFA import transactions, from acquisition to the distribution.
Sombilla also said the NFA should address the reports that claimed most of the rice that the country imports eventually falls in the hand of private traders who are selling the staple on a higher price and labeling them as commercial rice.
“It should come out in the audit,” Sombilla said. “It is also part of the resolution of the Council to clarify and validate the sufficient availability of rice.”
It was Evasco himself who said earlier that there is corruption in importation. To avoid this, he decided to allow importation but only through the open-tender or via a government-to-private (G2P) deal.
Early last year, Evasco accused some NFA officials of “flagrant corruption” and proposed to create a special committee to investigate them.
NFA is one of the 12 agencies that has been placed under the direct supervision of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary pursuant to Executive Order 1.
Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, for his part, said manipulation of NFA buffer stock in favor of private traders has long been the practice at the agency.
“I’m not accusing the top officials of NFA any irregularity but this has been the practiced a long time ago,” Piñol said.
“Somebody said before that by importing rice, we will effectively reduce the price. I will question that. The truth is, when it arrived here, it will soon be controlled by businessmen,” he added.
Meanwhile, Aquino said the NFA welcomes the audit to clarify issues on how the agency distributes its supply.
Now that the NFA already got the approval for its much desired plan to buy rice abroad, Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) won’t also let the agency off the hook for using the government’s low buying price of palay as an excuse not to procure the produce of local farmers.