By MARIO CASAYAYURAN
DEPARTMENT of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said yesterday that the Philippines could have a stable rice supply but his department lacks funds for an accelerated rice production program.
Appearing before the Senate finance sub-committee “F’’ to defend the DA’s proposed 2019 Php49.8 billion budget, Piñol said he pointed this out 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 admitted that the usual inflow of cheap smuggled rice from nearby Malaysia has been constricted and this triggered price rises in the ZAMBASUTA, adding that he did not propose legalizing the smuggling of rice.
He blamed the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for the current crisis in the agriculture sector when it restricted DA’s agriculture-related projects, including an accelerated rice production, by reducing to Php7.4 billion the DA’s proposed Php15 billion budget for these projects.
He pointed out that the 2018 Php55.6 billion budget of DA was reduced by DBM to Php49.8 billion, or a reduction of Php5.8 billion (-10.4 percent) for the coming 2019 fiscal year.
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, Pinol reiterated for the nth time his refrain: “There is no rice shortage.’’
In fact, rice farmers are enjoying high prices for their palay production as farm gate for palay at Php25 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 that he projects that the cost of National Food Authority (NFA) rice would be Php27 while commercial rice would be in the Php40 per kilo range.
Piñol stressed 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 the recommendation of Senator Villar to the Economic Cluster of 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 said 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.
Pinol told Villar that the DA is not involved in rice importation and distribution as these are under the responsibilities of the National Food Authority (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, Pinol said yes, explaining that this would synchronize their efforts, projections and schedules.
Piñol had said the NFA is not under the DA.
Villar said it appears that traders are controlling the flow of rice supply,
Sen. Francis Escudero noted that the price of imported rice is so low yet the price tags at the markets are very high.
“Kasalanan natin lahat yan,’’ an exasperated Villar said of the unchecked prices of rice.
Piñol said the DA has put up rewards against leaders of rice cartel and hoarders in the Southern Philippines.
Citing Vietnam and Israel that produce rice at least cost, Villar stressed that technology and mechanization are keys to efficient and increased palay production.