Senators on Thursday slammed Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol for suggesting that rice smugglers be allowed to operate in Mindanao as legitimate importers so that the price of the staple would go down.
In an interview with radio dzMM, Piñol said the areas of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi have long relied on smuggled rice and consider it “traditional trading.”
But prices shot up when smuggling stopped as a result of talks between President Rodrigo Duterte and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
“That’s the reason they ran out of rice in the Zambasulta area,” he said in Filipino.
Piñol suggested setting up a trading center in the south where smugglers can supply rice as legitimate importers, a proposal senators were quick to lambast.
Senator Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Senate committee on food and agriculture, slammed the idea as economic sabotage.
“We cannot encourage rice smuggling. Even if it’s happening everywhere. It’s against the law,” Villar said in a mix of Filipino and English, on the sidelines of the Agriculture and Fisheries Technology Forum.
She said the law views the smuggling of rice worth more than P10 million as economic sabotage.
Senator Joel Villanueva branded as “horrible” Piñol’s performance following his proposal to legalize rice smuggling in some parts of Mindanao.
“With the statements that he made… I think it’s terrible,” said Villanueva as he expressed disbelief that Piñol suggested legalizing rice smuggling in the Zambasulta area.
“I don’t know if that’s his intention. I’m sure he doesn’t mean it. You have to be more circumspect of what you say when you become the head of the agency. You just have to be careful about it,” he said.
Senator Nancy Binay on Thursday called on Malacañang to step in to end the apparent standoff between two of its agencies in charge of food security.
Binay urged Malacañang to mediate between the National Food Authority and the NFA Council, saying disagreements between the two have hurt the supply of low-cost NFA rice for more than a year now.
The prolonged deadlock, she added, has resulted in bouts of food insecurity.
The NFA is mandated to maintain a rice buffer stock for 15 days at any given time and 30 days during lean months, based on the country’s daily consumption rice requirement of 32,150 metric tons.
“It’s been one year that we’ve had a shortage of NFA rice, but we still have not fixed the problem,” Binay said in a mix of Filipino and English.
She said the immediate concern is the availability of affordable government-subsidized rice and to find solutions to the shortage by addressing the 30-day NFA rice buffer stock.
Villar, meanwhile, also questioned the Agriculture department’s policy to import rice and fish, saying this puts the livelihood of farmers and fishers at risk.
Her statement came after the department approved the importation of 17,000 metric tons of galunggong from China, in a bid to lower prices for the fish.
“Importation should not be our automatic reaction to problems besetting the agriculture sector. We should work for long-term solutions that will make us self-sufficient and competitive,” Villar said.
Villar said importing galunggong will not solve the problem of the dwindling fish stock.
“Why is there a need to import galunggong? Can we not find another replacement for galunggong?” Villar said, adding that protein can also be obtained from consuming other local catch such as bangus, hasa-hasa, ayungin and many others.
Villar also proposed for the imposition of a price ceiling to stop the spike in the prices of goods and to mount a no-nonsense campaign against cartels and smuggling.
“We all know there are cartels that control the prices of prime commodities. We alrady passed a law against agriculture smuggling… but sadly, nobody has been punished under this law,” she said.
Villar also stressed the need to implement “measures that will make the produce of Filipino farmers and fisherfolk competitive in this age of liberalization.”
“We need intervention from government that will provide an alternative source of income for fishermen when we close the fishing grounds and allow the catch to recover. To encourage inland production of fish, we need to strengthen our fingerlings distribution program,” she said.
In the case of rice farmers, Villar said mechanization will substantially reduce the cost of producing palay and farming with inbred seeds will improve the yield from four to six metric tons per hectare.
Under a rice tariff bill Villar will sponsor in the Senate, a P10-billion Rice Competitive Enhancement Fund will be created to bankroll programs designed to improve farmers’ productivity.
But Piñol said the only way to curb rice smuggling in the south and to stabilize prices was to let smugglers bring their shipments to a trading center.
“We are left with two options: We either allow smuggling to continue and just close our eyes, or we take full control of the situation. We set up a rice trading center,” he said.
He said this would let the government control the volume of rice entering the southern part of the country, and can let in just enough for the needs of the Zambasulta area, so that farmers on the mainland of Mindanao are not hurt by the entry of cheap, smuggled rice.