WHEN President Rodrigo Duterte ponders whether to allow more rice imports this year, he will be presented a host of numbers. But one disturbing figure he probably won’t get is the one that has the biggest long-term impact on the lives of millions of poor children.
As pointed out by former economic planning secretary Cielito Habito at the April 18 DuterteNomics Forum on the administration’s economic policies, one in every three Filipino children five years old or younger are stunted from malnutrition — an indication of permanently impaired brain and body development.
Habito reported that 33.5 percent of the 15 million or so Filipino children aged 5 or less — about 5 million in all — will never reach full physical and mental development, restricting their learning and earning capacity for life.
What’s that got to do with rice? Habito argued that high prices of the staple due to import restrictions cut into what poor families can spend on protein- and vitamin-rich foods. Hence, while our rice policy may help rice farmers, it may be harming the future of generations of Filipino children, including those of poor farmers.
To import or not to import
That’s not even talking about what those children and their indigent families would suffer if rice runs short and skyrockets in price.
For sure, President Duterte will get the numbers on rice stocks, production and importations, so he can decide how much foreign grain is needed.
The multi-agency Task Force Bigas is conducting a nationwide inventory of rice warehouses. The group under Agriculture Secretary Manuel Piñol, also includes the revenue and customs bureaus and the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
Secretary Piñol argued last month that no imports were needed at this time, with the bumper harvest in March exceeding projections by a quarter of a million tons. But Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., head of the NFA Council overseeing the National Food Authority, favored private-sector imports, while the NFA itself, under administrator Jason Aquino, contracted government-to-government purchases.
President Duterte initially sided with Piñol, even firing Evasco’s undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Reina Valdez for approving an importation, which Duterte lambasted for, in his view, threatening to slash rice prices to the detriment of farmers.
But after the President publicly thumbed down foreign rice, expert voices like the Federation for Economic Freedom warned of shortage and price spiral if all imports stopped.
FEF member Romy Bernardo pointed out that current stocks across the country are equivalent to 12 days of nationwide consumption, far below the 30 days deemed prudent during the lean months of July to September, when the nation draws down supplies while waiting for the main harvest.
Notably, too, just last December, both the US Department of Agriculture and the International Grains Council said the Philippines would need 1.4 million tons of rice imports this year.
Piñol then clarified that he did not oppose imports later in the year, and Task Force Bigas will verify how much rice we now have and what we may need to bring in. And last week, Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez allowed that private-sector rice imports may now be the direction.
The ides of July
While the President and the Cabinet are gathering and pondering rice numbers, another issue may further complicate things, and even precipitate a shortage: the Philippines’ commitment under World Trade Organization rules to replace starting in July the quantitative restrictions on rice imports with steep tariffs, which may reach 35 percent.
If the current minimum access volume regime will give way to rice duties, Congress needs to amend Republic Act 10848 to include the staple among commodities for which tariffs replace import limits.
Until this is passed, it is not clear whether foreign rice would be subjected to high duties and by how much, especially since the Philippines has repeatedly deferred tariffication, as it is allowed by the WTO. The uncertainty would make both importers and exporters wary of concluding purchases which could later be rendered unviable by high duties.
If this unclear situation persists well into June, importations may be delayed, leading to a big drop in existing stocks while waiting for shipments to arrive from abroad. And that could lead to scarcity, hoarding and profiteering.
As this column has recounted before, such a scenario could collapse President Duterte’s lofty trust, approval and satisfaction ratings, as they did to those of then-President Fidel Ramos during the 1995 rice shortage due to the El Niño drought. His +60 percent net satisfaction rating in 1992-1994 plunged to +1 in late 1995.
Keeping rice affordable and children well-fed
What to do? Plainly, President Duterte needs to decide two big questions: Will the Philippines import rice, and how much? And will the current quantitative restrictions on rice imports be replaced by tariffs? If tariffs go ahead, then Congress has to rush the RA 10848 amendment, so importers can contract shipments in time for the lean months.
If tariffication finally gets moving, three action points should be considered:
Congress should amend RA 10848 before its session ends on June 3, so that importations needed for July-September can be expedited. Ditto the Task Force Bigas inventory: it must be fast-tracked, so President Duterte can decide soon if there would be rice imports, and how much.
Second, NFA should channel its funds to local palay procurement, to support farmers in the face of possible enlarged import competition.
And third, the government should revive the rice-for-school program, which gave one kilogram of rice every class day to public schoolchildren in poor areas. This boosted not only pupils’ attendance, but also family nutrition.
And that may just save hundreds of thousands of young and poor boys and girls from a lifetime of stunted mind and body.