Farmers’ group seeks review of planned lifting of rice import restrictions

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Local farmers’organizations and advocates for rice farmers on Monday said they would ask members of Congress to conduct a far reaching consultation on the proposed lifting of the restriction on rice importation.

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In a media briefing, Centro Saka Inc. executive director Omi Royandoyan said that with the Cabinet now firm in its position to lift the restriction, they are ready to lobby their respective representatives in Congress for the continued protection of millions of rice farmers and ensure food security of Filipinos.

Royandoyan said the proposed amendments to Republic Act (RA) No. 8178, or the Agricultural Tariffication Act of 1996, which had kept the quantity restriction (QR) on rice importation in place, will have to be studied closely in consultation with farmers.

“It is politics. It’s about farmers versus the neo-liberal economists and policy makers. And the amendment of RA No. 8178 is a political act,” Royandoyan said.

“We want to know that Speaker of the House [Pantaleon Alvarez] really understands what we are doing. We are also ready to talk with our respective congressional district representatives [to lobby for the retention of the special treatment on rice],” Royandoyan added.

At the Senate, Senator Francis Pangilinan appealed to the Cabinet to make its position clear on the lifting of the QR on rice.

“We gently appeal to the Cabinet for their position on the lifting of the quantitative restriction on rice. We hope to have it before the World Trade Organization’s July 2017 deadline, so that we may be guided regarding possible pieces of legislation that needs amending,” the lawmaker said.

Pangilinan, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, recently convened a public hearing to discuss the implications of the WTO’s mandate to eliminate the QR.

The QRs are limits to the volume of goods traded by a country. The Philippines was granted an initial exemption from the QR lifting because of its highly sensitive nature.

The deadline for the Philippines has already been extended twice – in 2005 and in 2015; a waiver was subsequently obtained to further extend it to July 2017.

Rice is a commodity that has direct linkages to food security, livelihood security and the rural development needs of millions in developing countries like the Philippines.

At present, rice is the only commodity in the Philippines that enjoys special treatment in the WTO, which excluded the same from agriculture liberalization.

Unlike other agricultural products, no tariff was levied on rice which is the basic grain staple of the Philippines. Instead, rice farmers were protected through the imposition of a QR, which allows only a limited volume of the grains to enter the country. The current limit — minimum access volume (MAV) — is pegged at 805,000 metric tons.

MAV refers to the minimum volume of farm produce allowed to enter the Philippines at reduced tariffs, while shipments outside of MAV pay higher rates of 50 percent and would need approval by the National Food Authority.

Duterte’s economic team – Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, NEDA Director General Ernie Pernia and their consultant Cielito Habito – have declared their position to lift the QR on rice.

The office of Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco was also quoted as favoring the scrapping of the National Food Authority and lifting the special treatment on rice.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, on the other hand, appealed for an additional two-year leeway before the QR is lifted.

“We will present a somewhat divergent view. We ask for humanitarian consideration because our farmers are not yet prepared for the lifting of the QR. We first need to lower the cost of production and increase farm productivity so that our farmers will be able to compete against cheap imported rice,” Piñol said.

Pangilinan asked the DA to submit their two-year plan of action in the event that an extension is granted.

“We are more than willing to support initiatives that will help our farmers and consumers alike. We have to be able to provide an inventory of the safety nets for farmers. We also ask the NEDA and the DOF and other relevant agencies to provide us with necessary and updated data that will help us determine the impacts of both scenarios,” Pangilinan said.

Jaime Tadeo, president of Paragos Pilipinas, reminded the Cabinet’s economic cluster of the president’s promise explicitly stated in Executive Order No.1 to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the country’s most vulnerable sector.

“His lieutenants are looking at the opposite direction, opting to remove state support to the rice industry that has four million farmers dependent on for their livelihood,” Tadeo said.

“Instead of lifting the QR, this administration should strengthen its support so the local industry can gain the competitive advantage that the past administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Noynoy Aquino failed to give,” he added.

Tadeo noted that the Philippines has been given a ten-year reprieve by the global trade body but despite the extensive funding provided for the staple commodity, its producers remain poor, the cost of production remains very high compared to that in competing rice producers in the Southeast Asian region, and productivity is dismal and unprofitable.

“If the government truly serves the marginalized rice farmers, it should defend their interest against the liberalized entry of imported rice,” he said.

Tadeo said, one of the important elements toward achieving this goal, is state intervention by way of support services, irrigation support, and other steps to lower the cost of production of local palay.

Meanwhile, Ed Mora of the Pambansang Kaisahan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas, said that the NFA should continue to receive government funding so it can buy from farmers and influence buying of palay at a higher price.

“The government should also maintain that the buffer stock of the country must rest on the NFA’s purchase of domestic supply and not from imported rice,” Mora said.

This could be done by allocating at least P30 billion annually, a sum which should be include in the General Appropriations Act, he added.

The group also called on President Duterte to change the composition of the NFA Council and remove the representatives of banks including the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, and keep only one representative of the Development Budget Coordination Committee.

“The evil design of keeping the NFA dependent on debts to maintain its operations should end,” the group said.

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