Rice importation woes loom; producers secure supply

By Madelaine B. Miraflor

Rice importers like the Philippines, the world's top rice importer, may face difficultly importing rice as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) prompts rice exporting countries like Vietnam to keep most of their stocks for themselves.

If that wasn’t bad enough, COVID-19 is also causing logistical problems, delaying shipments all over the world not just for rice.

Vietnam, the Philippines’ number one source of imported rice, has temporarily stopped signing new rice export contracts after its prime minister ordered to review the country's domestic supply of the staple amid the threat of COVID-19. Vietnam and Thailand are the world’s largest top rice exporters.

The result of the government review on Vietnam's rice stocks and exports should be available by Saturday.

"While waiting for the report from the working group, the signing of all new rice export contracts will be suspended, and those contracts that have already been signed will be dealt with after the report is available," the Vietnamese government said.

The decision came as Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phu vowed that the country will not run out of food amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reacting to Vietnam’s situation, Agriculture Secretary William Dar said “It’s a concern that we are putting in radar screen”, adding that there are still other rice exporting countries like Thailand, Myanmar, India, and Pakistan that the Philippines can import from.

“The importation continues as well as the issuance of import clearance. We are monitoring the arrival of imported rice to analyze if it’s enough,” Dar said.

In the meantime, Dar said the supply is good for the next two months and that the DA is now enhancing other measures to make this supply lasts until the end of the year.

The problem, according to Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) National Manager Raul Montemayor, is not the supply for the first semester, but for the latter part of the year.

“For the first semester, we are safe. Our problem is July to September when our harvest is normally low,” Montemayor said in a phone interview.

Montemayor said he doesn’t think Vietnam will totally stop exporting rice amid high surplus, but it will definitely reduce the amount it is exporting, which will result in the increase in prices.

The spread of COVID-19 across different of the worlds, he said, is also disrupting shipments and port operations.
“You have two questions to ask before the lean months. The first question is will the private sector import even if the price is increasing? The second is can they import on time for the lean months even if they know they will face port logistics problems?” Montemayor said.

He then suggested that DA must start realigning its exist¬ing programs as well as the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) to facilitate quick turnaround in food production, especially in the planting of pa¬lay.

“They should provide seeds, irrigation, fertilizers to farmers now,” Montemayor said. “The ₱5 billion RCEF allotment for mechanization that hasn’t been obligated, they can use that for it.”
Meanwhile, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez is hopeful that Vietnam will not stop exporting rice to the Philippines.

“If the President himself asks them, Vietnam will not let us down,” Lopez said.

For his part, Samahang Industriya ng Agri kultura (SINAG) Chair Rosendo So said that at this time of a global health pandemic, there must already be a realization from ev¬eryone that “food self-sufficiency is the only way to feed our own people”.

“We must only rely on our own capacity and capability to put food on our dining tables,” So said.
Rice Watch Action Network, Inc. (R1) also said that the pandemic “not only exposes us to the virus but also to the realities of our import dependent food system.”

“We are now realizing that not only is our health system fragile against the COVID-19 virus but it has also exposed the vulnerability of our food system because of the unpreparedness of our supply chains. It is a global pandemic and therefore our food security is at risk as international trade is also affected,” R1 said.

It was around this time last year when the Philippine government began implementing the Rice Tariffication Law, which removed the quantitative restrictions and most government controls on rice imports.

As a result, an estimated 3 million metric tons (MT) of imported rice entered the country during the year, effectively making the Philippines the largest rice importer in the world, beating China.

This resulted to the steep decline in the price of palay, resulting to billions of losses for farmers and forcing them to abandon their farms to pursue other livelihood.

R1 said that during this time, the role of the state to monitor and keep prices stable is essential.
It then asked the government to restore the power of National Food Authority (NFA) to help prevent hoarding, price gouging and strengthen its capacity to procure local palay.

“If this persists, the rice exporting countries will keep their stocks for themselves,” Montemayor said, citing an incident that happened in 2008, during the financial crisis, when Thailand and Vietnam both issued an export ban on rice, pushing global prices up.