Dealing with a gut issue

According to a survey, over 10.4 percent of Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months.


According to a survey, over 10.4 percent of Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER

August 25, 2023

MANILA – With rice now selling from P56 to P65 a kilo, President Marcos’ campaign promise to reduce its price to P20 a kilo has come to haunt him. More so with the admission by the Department of Agriculture (DA), which he heads as secretary, that it “never promised,” nor has it any plan, on how to trim rice prices to that level.

“To be honest,” DA Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian told House Deputy Minority Leader Mujiv Hataman during the budget deliberation at the House on Tuesday, “We [have] never discussed about those things … with the President.”

For the average Filipino who, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, consumes a third of a kilo of rice a day, the soaring price of this staple is a gut issue, with Sebastian’s admission fanning prospects of an even leaner table in most households. Over 10.4 percent, or a third, of Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months, a Social Weather Stations survey from June 28 to July 1 this year indicated.

The President has attributed the high price of rice to expensive farm-gate costs, agricultural hoarders, and limited importation, with the Presidential Communications Office quoting Sebastian as saying that global fear from the adverse impact of El Niño has forced rice exporters to tighten supply in the world market.

Given how costly agricultural inputs have become, retired crop science professor from the University of the Philippines Dr. Teodoro Mendoza said the P20 per kilo rice isn’t possible “unless the government subsidizes 55 percent of the market price.”

With rice commercially sold at double the farm-gate prices, the “promised P20 rice price implies a farm-gate palay price of about P10 a kilo—well below the P12 to P15 that farmers cite as their production cost,” pointed out Inquirer columnist and former socioeconomic chief Cielito Habito.

DA deputy spokesperson Rex Estoperez, meanwhile, cited the country’s rice planting cycle as a contributory factor, with the harvest season over and still to resume in October when, presumably, rice prices would stabilize.

The National Food Authority has also been blamed, with Estoperez noting the need to address the NFA’s skimpy nine days’ worth of buffer stock. The remaining 81 days should be shouldered by the private sector or “our national inventory will be lacking,” he added.

Where before the NFA had the sole authority to import rice, with private traders allowed to participate if they got a permit, Republic Act No. 11203 or the Rice Tariffication Act mandates the agency with the task of maintaining sufficient rice inventory sourced only from local farmers.

But why didn’t the NFA stock up on rice earlier, the farmers’ group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) has asked? “The problem is they did not buy any,” said Sinag president Rosendo So, who also called for the agency’s abolition for allegedly favoring rice imports rather than buying from local farmers.

While challenging the NFA to prove its worth by helping farmers and buying their produce at higher prices, Sen. Francis Escudero of the Senate Committee on Agriculture also noted that with the NFA’s “measly funding of only P8.5 billion,” it cannot “procure enough palay from local farmers at a ‘higher price’ and sell it at a ‘lower price’ to consumers.” Instead of abolishing it, Congress should revisit Presidential Decree No. 4, the NFA’s charter, “to strengthen the power and capacity of the NFA to do its mandate,” the senator said.

Amid the finger-pointing, the DA has a lot of catching up to do if it were to resolve the impending rice crisis. Having confessed to virtual complacency—how else call the lack of any plan or even discussion on controlling the runaway price of this staple food—DA officials can revisit the President’s formula on bringing down rice prices, at least to more affordable levels since the P20 per kilo promise has been likened to “asking for the moon,” as National Economic and Development Authority Secretary Arsenio Balisacan describes it.

The Marcos formula lists down several imperatives that the DA can follow: subsidize farm inputs and rice prices; set a price ceiling to prevent hoarders and traders from manipulating market forces; regularly make an inventory of NFA stocks and rice production; buy from local farmers instead of turning to imports, and investigate and penalize rice cartels and hoarders. But then that question again: If the President is busy with the weighty job of the presidency that he has not attended meetings with the DA in the last six months, as DA Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban told a House hearing, why is he hanging on as DA secretary?

Given the government’s inability to bring down rice prices and secure more supply, the suggestion by Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual for Filipinos to shift their diet to alternatives like sweet potato (camote) or white corn sounded like an insensitive, tone-deaf comment. Well, every little bit helps.

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