By Argyll Cyrus Geducos and Ellson Quismorio
The national government has approved the recommendation of the Department of Agriculture (DA) to work with Southeast Asian trading partners to ensure that there will be enough food for the public as the country battles the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Based on the most recent bulletin from the Inter-agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the DA, including the departments of Finance (DOF) and Trade and Industry (DTI), shall work with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) trading partners and encourage them to refrain from imposing trade-restrictive measures to ensure that existing supply contracts are prioritized.
It includes the importation of an additional 300,000 metric tons of rice, if necessary, through Government-to-Government arrangements with ASEAN trading partners and/or from all sources, including India and Pakistan at the ASEAN-level tariff.
The DA’s Plant, Plant, Plant Program or 4Ps in Agriculture, in addition, shall be provided the necessary budgetary allocations amounting to P31 billion in order to implement, expand, and increase food adequacy in the country.
The IATF, meanwhile, reiterated that farmers and fishers are now allowed to continue their activities during the enhanced community quarantine being implemented in Luzon.
Last week, the IATF approved DA’s recommendation to exempt all healthy farmers, farmworkers, fishers, and agri-business personnel from the quarantine restrictions so they continue operating.
The body likewise ensured the unhampered movement of all supplies used for agriculture, including food packaging and manufacturing materials.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles earlier said that farmers and fishers should be allowed to continue because they help maintain the food supply in the country.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, meanwhile, urged the public to report if local government units (LGUs) will not allow farmers, fishers, and their supplies to go pass checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the IATF likewise approved last week the reactivation of the Local Price Coordination Council and for the LGUs and market masters to strictly implement the price freeze and suggested retail price (SRP) compliance.
Buy more local palay to shore up supply
The National Food Authority (NFA) must now ramp up the buying of palay (unhusked rice) from Filipino farmers if the government wants to mitigate the impact of top rice producer Vietnam’s decision to suspend exportation of the staple grain.
Bayan Muna Party-List Rep. Carlos Zarate presented this as an immediate solution to the growing concern on food security as other countries are gearing toward stockpiling their food for their own people amid the COVID pandemic.
“What can be done now for the short term is for the government through the NFA to go all-out in buying palay from local farmers at P20 to P23 per kilogram to bolster our stocks and help farmers hit by the lockdown,” Zarate said, referring to the ongoing Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) of Luzon.
The sudden spike in local farm gate prices of palay could be an indication of how dire the situation has become. Camarines Sur 2nd district Rep. LRay Villafuerte said during his defense of the proposed emergency powers bill that traders now purchase palay from farmers at P19 to P20 per kilo.
The buying price was a measly P5 to P7 per kilo back in January, when the COVID-19 was virtually non-existent in the Philippines. The country was also coming off the importation of a whopping three million metric tons (MT) of rice as a result of Republic Act (RA) 11203 or the Rice Tariffication Law the previous year.
“We have to brace for the worse, particularly our vulnerable and marginalized poor, in the days to come as other rice exporting countries, like Thailand, may follow suit [from Vietnam] and put our already threatened food security in even more perilous state,” said the Makabayan solon, adding that the long-term solution to the problem is to repeal RA 11203 since it made the Philippines dependent on rice imports.
Using the NFA’s own data on rice stock inventory on bags weighing 50 kilograms, there are 9,490,099 rice bags available as of March 19, 2020.
“When this available supply is divided [with the] 661,930-bag daily consumption requirement of Filipinos, this would only last for 14.33 days – a very alarming scenario, to say the least, especially now,” Zarate said.
Of the three million MTs of rice imported last year under the tarrification law, 2.1 million MTs came from Vietnam, while a portion of the remainder came Thai suppliers, former Butil Party-List Rep. Cecil Chavez said.
“We have to understand that the volume of rice traded on the global market is actually very thin, some six million metric tons traded to the open market and Vietnam and Thailand are two of the major sources, along with Bangladesh,” she said.
She said the supply uncertainty can only be remedied by increasing domestic rice production through support funds drawn from the justenacted special or emergency powers of the President.