By Mario Casayuran
Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol on Monday blamed the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for the current crisis in the agriculture sector, saying it restricted the Department of Agriculture’s (DA’s) agriculture-related projects, including an accelerated rice production, when it reduced to P7.4 billion the DA’s proposed P15 billion budget for these projects.
He pointed out that the 2018 P55.6 billion budget of DA was reduced by DBM to P49.8 billion, or a reduction of P5.8 billion (-10.4 percent) for the coming 2019 fiscal year.
Piñol told the Senate that the Philippines could have a stable rice supply now if not for the DA’s lack of funds for an accelerated rice production program.
Appearing before the Senate Finance sub-committee “F” to defend the DA’s proposed P49.8-billion budget for 2019, Piñol said he had pointed out this funding problem to President Duterte during a recent meeting on the continuing rice distribution problems persisting in the country, particularly in the Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (Zambasuta) region.
He also admitted that the usual inflow of cheap smuggled rice from nearby Malaysia has been constricted and this triggered price rises in the Zambasuta, but stressed that he did not propose legalizing the smuggling of rice.
No rice shortage
Clarifying an observation by Sen. Cynthia A. Villar, sub-committee chairwoman, of high rice prices in the country and rice shortages in parts of the country, particularly in the southern Mindanao, Piñol reiterated for the nth time that “there is no rice shortage.”
In fact, rice farmers are enjoying high prices for their palay production as farm gate for palay at P25 per, the highest so far, and are thus encouraged to increase production, he added.
Remember, the farmers have been economically handicapped, he added.
After the budget hearing, Piñol told Senate reporters that the price of rice and other agricultural produce have stabilized because of the good weather and arrival of cheap vegetables from Bukidnon.
He pointed out that palay would be harvested in November and he projects that the cost of National Food Authority (NFA) rice would be P27 while commercial rice would be in the P40 per kilo range.
Meanwhile, Piñol stressed that the current rice crisis was created by delayed arrival of rice imported by the private sector, driven by the speculative effect of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN), and hoarding by traders creating supply constriction they say is “inventory management.”
He said he would submit to the Economic Cluster the recommendation of Senator Villar that price ceilings should be imposed by the President on basic commodities when prices are abnormal.
Reacting to a conversation between Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia and congressmen that rice production is not a priority, Piñol said he chose not to comment because “this is discouraging.”
“We are going through a rude awakening that agriculture should not be shunted to the sidelines.”
Villar, meanwhile, noted that the country produced 11.8 million tons of rice and even imported 500,000 tons of rice. Yet, there is a current rice supply problem, she added.
Piñol told Villar that the DA is not involved in rice importation and distribution as these are under the responsibilities of the NFA.
Several senators have asked for the abolition of the NFA for the current rice supply mess.
Asked if he would want to become a member of the NFA Council, Piñol said yes, explaining that this would synchronize their efforts, projections, and schedules.
During the hearing, Villar said it appears that traders are controlling the flow of rice supply, while Sen. Francis Escudero noted that the price of imported rice is so low yet the price tags at the markets are very high.
Piñol said the DA has put up rewards against leaders of rice cartel and hoarders in the Southern Philippines.
“Kasalanan natin lahat yan,” an exasperated Villar said of the unchecked prices of rice.
Citing Vietnam and Israel that produce rice at least cost, Villar stressed that technology and mechanization are keys to efficient and increased palay production.
The lady lawmaker said that mechanizing the farmlands and using hybrid seeds developed by PhilRice would make rice supply stable because the current rice production would increase from four tons to six tons per hectare.
Villar, a real estate magnate, noted that the country’s rice production is centered in Central Luzon while there are virtually no rice production in Mindanao and the
Visayas which have mountainous but unplanted lands.
“Why can’t we plant in these mountains?” she asked.
Brace for super typhoon
At the House of Representatives, Davao City 1st District Rep. KarloNograles on Monday prodded the NFA to step up rice procurement efforts so that it could buy palay (unmilled rice) from local farmers before supertyphoonMangkhut hits the country. The typhoon remains outside the country’s area of responsibility, but may hit the country in the next few days.
“The NFA has not had a good track record in procuring rice from local farmers, but if there is a time for them to step up and intensify their rice procurement operations, this is it,” stressed Nograles, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.
It was in this regard that he reiterated calls for the NFA Council to increase the government’s buying price of palay from the current P17 to P22 per kilo so that the NFA could compete with local rice traders. (With a report from Ellson A. Quismorio)