DA appears bypassed in new rice import decision

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The National Food Authority (NFA) Council appears to have eased out the Department of Agriculture (DA) in its decision to proceed with the importation of an additional 250,000 MT of rice for this year.
Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, who is also the honorary chairman of the NFA Council, said he has no knowledge of the planned importation, which according to reports will serve as additional buffer stock.

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“I don’t know if they have already discussed this with the interagency committee. But I would like to remind them that there is a process before anyone could decide on the importation,” Alcala said, adding that the DA was not invited during the decision-making.
“There should be a recommendation coming from the interagency committee before the NFA Council can decide on that,” he added.

Newly appointed NFA Administrator Arthur Juan earlier told the House Committee on Agriculture and Food and Food Security that the NFA Council already gave a go signal for the importation. The volume would be on top of the 800,000 MT of rice earlier imported from Vietnam.

Juan also said that the fresh rice stocks would arrive between August and September, the start of the harvest season for palay farmers.

The NFA chief’s statement came after the National Economic and Development Authority’s (NEDA) recommendation to ease rice import curbs in an effort to arrest rising prices of rice in the domestic market, and limit losses at the state grains agency.

NEDA Secretary Arsenio Balisacan also said that the Aquino government’s policymakers will also consider proposals to adopt a free market, which would allow private traders “unlimited” rice importation. Palay farmers, he said, will be shielded from the influx of cheap imported rice through tariff scheme.

If approved, the unlimited rice importation policy would, in turn, trash the years of negotiations at the World Trade Organization to extend Manila’s special treatment on rice.

Recently, the WTO Committee on Trade in Goods granted the Philippines’ request to extend its quantitative restriction on rice until 2015 as part of protections of local palay farmers from cheap imported grains, and to allow time to prepare them for global trade.

Meanwhile, farmers and civil society group the Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) opposed the proposals to allow private sector rice importation, criticizing what they characterized as the government’s continuing insensitivity to the plight of poor rice farmers.

“Rice Watch reiterates its position that only the government should be allowed to import to strengthen accountability and make sure smuggling is averted,” said Aurora Regalado, R1 Convenor.

“Unlike the private sector, the government is answerable to the prices, volume and other details of the importation. We have seen from experience that opening importation to private sector has resulted to rampant smuggling,” Regalado added.

She also stressed that reforms in the Bureau of Customs have yet to be completed, and may not be able to safeguard against illegal practices in importation.

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