The Philippines’ Most Politically Sensitive Commodity?

After blowing hot and cold on the issue, the government has decided that the country needs to import rice. This time, however, the administration is reportedly avoiding government-to-government deals, which an official said yesterday were prone to corruption. Instead the government will source rice from the private sector.

Because of developments in previous years, corruption is one of the biggest concerns in any decision to import rice. Despite reports of a bumper rice harvest, officials said yesterday that the nation’s rice buffer was becoming depleted, necessitating the importation of the staple.

In the recent past, industry experts have blamed the Philippine government for pushing up world rice prices due to massive importations that critics said were not necessary. Lessons should have been learned from rice scandals in the past. As the government prefers to resume rice importations, safeguards can be put in place to deter corruption, discourage price manipulation and rice cartels, and monitor the actions of public officials involved in negotiations and procurement.

President Duterte, who has promised a relentless war on corruption, must show that any rice importation under his watch will be different. Any importation must also balance the needs of local rice farmers, who are averse to imports, and consumers.

Rice, being the nation’s staple, is a politically sensitive commodity. The last thing the President should want is a scandal hitting rice importations approved under his administration. If he believes importing rice is necessary at this time, he can turn it into a model of how to go about it properly, without forgetting the welfare of local farmers, and with no taint of corruption.


Image may contain: 2 people, mountain, grass, sky, outdoor and nature

Rice Harvesting in Banaue, The Philippines PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER

Rice prices rising anew despite ‘good harvest’

It’s almost June. Rice retail prices are inching up again. A repeat looms of the price surges of June 2013 and 2014. The government could be repeating past mistakes.

To recount those two consecutive years, the agriculture department had bragged of dry-season bumper harvests in March-April. Supposedly the Philippines was fast becoming self-sufficient in rice. Still there were supply shortages by June. Rates spiked 33 percent per kilo. Consumers howled. Senate inquiries ensued. Unnamed price manipulators-hoarders were blamed. Yet no one was indicted for economic sabotage.

In the Senate hearings emerged claims that protectors were abetting the crooks. Insiders said there were two factions at the National Food Authority. One was aligned with the vaunted “Goliath of Rice Smuggling.” The guy was facing lawsuits ranging from electricity theft to importing garbage, but nothing close to rice staple. The other faction was controlled by a big trader in Binondo, Manila. So sly was he that he has caused the sacking of NFA officials since 2014.

There was another bumper crop this March-April 2017. So why are prices rising?

The answer is in the supply, as usual. Domestic production has always been short. Rice farmers have been neglected for decades. They hardly receive help in the form of irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides, high-yield seedlings, post-harvest facilities, and warehousing. Bureaucrats steal the meager funds the government plunks into “agricultural competitiveness enhancement.” The NFA keeps importing rice, by itself or through selected traders, instead of letting the private sector freely do it. From private rice imports, the NFA could have earned tens of billions of pesos a year in tariffs. Add that to its P5-billion annual budget, and the NFA would have had money not only to buy local harvests but also modernize rice farming. But then, the kickbacks are in overpriced imports, selective licensing, cargo handling, sacks, and other items. The past agriculture and NFA chiefs were charged with P3.2-plunder in 2013-2014, although the Ombudsman sat on the case.

This year the NFA permitted selected traders to bring in 650,000 tons by end-February. For various reasons – suppliers’ delivery lapses, shipping delays – 150,000 tons missed the deadline. The administrator forbade them from extending till March. It was already harvest time. Any more rice imports would have dampened farm-gate prices, and farmers would lose money.

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 Planting Rice. Photo credit Penny Tweedie—Stone, Getty Images

Meantime, the NFA Council ignored the administrator’s request to import by June 250,000 tons, via government-to-government deals with Thailand or Vietnam. That’s only part of the NFA’s intended 1.3-million-ton import for the whole of 2017. The Council knew there could be hanky-panky in G-to-Gs. Vietnam’s counterparts of the NFA, Vinafoods-1 and -2, know only too well the “kalakaran,”or percentage, that Filipino officials expect.

With each guarding the other, the rice stocks thinned out. The safe supply level was unmet. It should have been 650,000 tons from the selected traders, but this fell short of 150,000 tons. Add to that the 1.3 million tons that NFA committed to buy within 2017, but 250,000 tons of that did not come in on time. By June there would be shortage of 400,000 tons.

The giant smuggler and rival big Binondo trader know the situation, of course. The bumper harvest was insufficient to fill domestic demand. There was a 150,000-ton shortage of private imports before March. With only 500,000 tons brought in, the importers would up their price to recover the cost of the withheld 150,000 tons. Going in their favor is the much-announced refusal of the NFA Council to allow the G-to-G of 250,000 tons.

Quietly last week, President Duterte reportedly allowed the entry of the 150,000 tons earlier debarred by the NFA administrator. The latter in turn also rushed private imports from India and Pakistan. Timely arrival and distribution of those imported stocks to the 16 NFA warehouses nationwide would somehow lessen the domestic supply shortage. But the country will enter the lean months starting late June.

Come July the country should have lifted its “qualitative restrictions” on rice. Under a commitment since 2005 to the World Trade Organization, the NFA no longer may select a few importers under the MAV (minimum access volume). Anyone may henceforth import, so long as the tariff is paid. Once pegged at 50 percent, that tariff presently is at 35 percent.

The government is caught in a bind. If it lets in a free-flow of rice imports, prices would drop from natural competition. Consumers would benefit, but farmers would go hungry – unless subsidized with the earnings from the tariffs. If the government continues to restrict imports, the WTO and agriculture importing countries may impose sanctions. They may ban or tighten through their own higher tariffs their imports of Philippine sugar, bananas, pineapples, even semiconductors and overseas Filipino workers.

Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

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One Response to “The Philippines’ Most Politically Sensitive Commodity?”

  1. Brittius Says:

    Reblogged this on Brittius.

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