Food agency panel warned on rice deals

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WITH the National Food Authority (NFA) Council set to meet after activist lawyer Argee Guevarra bared the alleged overpricing of government rice imports, the outspoken University of the Philippines Law alumnus on Monday appealed to members of the NFA Council to guard against attempts by beleaguered Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Proceso Alcala and NFA Administrator Orlan Calayag to push for additional government-funded rice importation.

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“The Council used to be convened at least once every month, or even more when there are urgent matters that require its attention. Why is it only being convened now, when alleged anomalies, high rice prices and questions regarding rice supply have been raised since August this year?” said Guevarra.

“Baka naman balak lang nilang gamitin ang mga ito para itulak na naman ang kanilang ma-anomalyang government-to-government importation [It is possible that they plan on using these issues to again push for their anomalous G-to-G importation scheme],” he said.

Guevarra said that according to NFA insiders, it was surprising that the NFA Council had not been convened since July, when rice prices began to steadily increase, hitting all-time highs in September despite heavy government spending in rice importation and assurances of self-sufficiency.

DA assurances of rice self-sufficiency have since been disputed by its own statistics bureau chief, Assistant Secretary Romeo Recide, who in September this year testified in Congress that the DA would miss the rice self-sufficiency mark by 500,000 metric tons (MT).

“Experts from government, the private sector, and the academe all agree that public funds are better spent on agricultural infrastructure, irrigation, and post-harvest facilities,” Guevarra explained.

“Only BFFs [best friends forever]Alcala and Calayag insist on a government monopoly of an acknowledged private sector function,” he added.

Supposedly, Alcala convinced the government in April 2013 to spend an estimated P4 billion, exclusive of duties and taxes, to buy 205,700MT of rice from Vietnam, “when the private sector could instead have foot the bill for importing the rice and paid the government fees for importing the staple.”

Said April transaction is under investigation by both the Senate and the House of Representatives for allegations of overpricing to the tune of P457 million.

“Kumita pa sana gobyerno kung private sector nag-import. Sa April 2013 importation, gumastos pa gobyerno at mukhang iba ang kumita. Para tayong ginigisa nito sa sarili nating mantika [Our government could have profited if it let the private sector import rice. In April, the government instead spent its own funds and it looks like someone else profited. It’s like we’re being sautéd in our own fat],” added the lawyer.

Guevarra added that “in light of the parallel Senate and House probes, members of the Council should not allow themselves to become unwitting accomplices of Alcala and Calayag.”

“These congressional inquiries have raised more questions about the rationale behind government-led rice importation. If Council members are not careful, they may be dragged into this mess,” Guevarra said.

Alcala chairs the NFA Council while the NFA Administrator sits as vice chair. It counts among its members the representatives of the farmer sector, the Office of the President, the Department of Finance, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the Development Bank of the Philippines, the Land Bank of the Philippines, and the Philippine National Bank. One of its mandates is to determine the amount of rice to be imported in a given year, based on the recommendations of the DA.

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