By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat and Madelaine Miraflor
The much vaunted massive distribution of cheap and accessible rice by the government hit a snag on Monday as groceries and supermarkets being tapped as new distribution channels were required to secure permits to be able to sell NFA rice, and then were reportedly given the run around.
Steven Cua, president of PAG-ASA, an association of 200 supermarkets and grocery members nationwide, said efforts to flood the market with cheaper rice hit some technicalities because NFA required their retailers to get a permit.
“At the rate permits in the Philippines are given, the rice “crisis” could have been resolved by the time we get them,” Cua lamented. He noted that some of their stores do not sell rice at all making the permit “dysfunctional” once this temporary arrangement expires.
The Department of Trade and Industry and the NFA signed a memorandum of Agreement that would allow supermarkets and groceries to sell NFA rice.
NFA kicked off this program Monday with one PAG-ASA member-store, the Daily Supermarket near Cubao area, who was allowed to buy, pick-up and repack the NFA rice.
Cua noted that these retailers were asked to pay in manager’s checks and to pick up the rice from the NFA Paco office warehouse.
“They didn’t make it easy, convenient, and attractive for us to help. Rice is just one commodity. We carry on the average easily 25,000 products,” said Cua.
The government allowed the retailers to also get a reasonable return but Cua stressed, “This is not our priority, but we are willing to help. But do we have to line up to get the permit, pay somewhere else, pick up the product somewhere else, and most of us don’t have the trucks for that. So it’s so much a hassle to help.”
Cua could only surmise that perhaps NFA was extra careful in screening the retailers against unscrupulous traders. However he noted that they did the same arrangement during then President Arroyo’s term and there was no problem.
500,000MT rice importation
Meanwhile, the NFA has given the green light for the importation of an additional 500,000 metric tons (MT) of rice, which will be on top of the recently approved importation of 250,000 MT through an open tender scheme.
“NFA Council approved the entry of additional 750,000 MT rice imports this year. This would be an additional 500,000 MT to the 250,000 MT earlier approved,” Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol told reporters on Monday.
“The Council also approved the standby importation of one million MT for 2019. The message that we want to get across is that for those hoarding rice, you better release your stocks in the market now before these imported stocks come in,” he added.
As of now, about one million MT of imported rice had already entered the country since January, with more expected by the latter part of the year.
Two weeks ago, the Council adhered to the order of the President and approved the importation of additional 250,000 MT of rice via an open tender scheme.
The move is supposed to be part of the government’s response to tame inflation and the non-stop increase in the prices of commercial rice in local markets.
The new stock to be bought under this new importation program, however, is expected to arrive in November.
Piñol, who now serves as the NFA Council head, a few weeks ago had raised concerns over a possible rice crisis if the country’s economic managers would keep on pushing for more importation instead of allotting funds to boost local production.
President Duterte had signed the Executive Order (EO) formally returning NFA, among other agencies, under the supervision of the DA.
The EO reorganized the NFA Council, making Piñol the chairman of the highest policy making body of the NFA, while the NFA Administrator will serve as the Vice Chairman.
This came at a time when NFA is faced with a rice crisis mainly brought about by the non-stop increase in the prices of rice, followed by Tyhoon Ompong which brought billions of pesos of damages to the agriculture sector.
NFA on Friday also called on the Council to fast-track the forthcoming rice importation to make sure that the agency won’t run out of buffer stock while it was forced to give a lot of it away to the victims of Typhoon Ompong.
NFA Spokesperson Rex Estoperez said in a statement that NFA will ask the approval of the NFA Council to allow the early importation of additional rice.
“Because of the typhoons, we will propose to the NFA Council if they can allow us to import in advance. Many of our crops are damaged so we have to import earlier,” Estoperez said.
Importation to hurt farmers
The government’s plan to import more rice is seen to hurt local farmers who are expecting to harvest their year-end yields.
This was according to Herculano “Joji” Co, president of the Philippine Confederation of Grains Association, who first couldn’t believe that the NFA would still push for more importation this year.
“Ewan ko kung magagawa yan [I don’t know if they can do it]. If you do it last quarter, for what? Aani na [it’s already harvest season],” Co said in an earlier interview.
For 2018, the government is projecting a bumper harvest in palay, with Piñol even saying the country will have a record palay output of 19.4 million MT this year.
Moreover, Samahan ng Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) believes the existing rice importation program will not help temper the price of rice in the market as it had failed to do so in the past months.