No need to panic, Palace tells public
STATE-RUN National Food Authority (NFA) is scraping the bottom of the barrel as government-subsidized rice stocks at government-controlled warehouses fell bellow 300,000 bags on Tuesday.
An official privy to the matter told The Manila Times palay or paddy rice procurement remained low at only 19,000 as of Tuesday, barely enough to meet national daily requirements for the staple.
“It’s not totally depleted, but local palay procurement remains below target,” the official said.
A report obtained by The Manila Times stated that inspectors were unable to find NFA rice, which is cheaper compared with commercial rice, in public markets.
The Grain Retailers Confederation of the Philippines had expressed concern over the absence of NFA rice in the market. This is said to be the first time since 1972 that the agency had run out of subsidized rice.
NFA spokesman Rex Estoperez said the agency was pushing its policymaking body, the NFA Council, to schedule the arrival of imported rice in April, instead of May or June, because of the grains agency’s inability to procure paddy rice from local farmers at a low buying price.
The interagency NFA Council, however, sees no urgent need to hasten the importation of 250,000 metric tons (MT) of rice scheduled to arrive late May or June, or before the lean months.
Assistant Secretary Mercedita Sombilla of the National Economic Development Authority said the terms of reference of the rice importation needed to be approved first.
“We wanted NFA to follow the guidelines of 2017 importation,” Sombilla said. “But they have included several provisions which we will still have to review.”
Imported rice will arrive on a staggered basis within the lean months.
“The 250,000 MT may arrive in bulk or staggered. But we prefer the arrival to be spread out from late May to September since traders could not handle that big of a volume,” she said.
Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra confirmed there would be no changes in the importation schedule.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the NFA proposed measures to ensure food security and said the agency should retain its regulatory powers, amid proposals in Congress to clip its authority and turn over importation to the private sector.
“In an era of boundless influx of rice imports into the country, the government should be more vigilant about maintaining adequate levels of the staple and to make it constantly available and accessible to all at affordable prices,” NFA administrator Jason Aquino said.
The NFA’s regulatory function is necessary to ensure the sustainability of food supply and to protect the rights of the marginalized consumers to affordable and safe food grains pursuant to the Food Safety Law, Aquino said.
No need to panic – Palace
Malacañang on Tuesday urged the public not to worry over reports that the rice reserve of the NFA had been “wiped out.”
In a text message sent to reporters, Guevarra, the senior deputy executive secretary, said the rice supply for the whole country was still overflowing.
“We all know that the stocks of the NFA is low, but the overall rice supply is more than sufficient with plenty to spare. No need to panic,” Guevarra said.
Jonas Soriano, deputy executive director of the Office of Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco who heads the NFA Council, told reporters on Tuesday that while the NFA stocks only accounted for a small portion of the overall distribution of rice, the wipeout was still puzzling as the agency was required to maintain a reserve in case of calamities.
Soriano hinted that the NFA had mismanaged the supply of subsidized rice.
“When the government heard [that there was a shortage of NFA stocks]in Metro Manila, we questioned the NFA report [where it bared that during the months of]October, November, December they sold a lot of rice. It was harvest season, so why did they sell a lot of rice during Christmas season? During the lean season that there is not much supply of rice, they do not sell. So, where’s the logic? But we don’t want to make any judgment here,” Soriano said.
“Still, NFA rice is supposed to be used as a buffer stock during times of calamity so it should not be wiped out. If it is wiped out, what will we use during emergency?” he added.
Soriano said the government would pursue an independent audit to be done by the Commission on Audit, to look at NFA operations.
“[We want to] establish what are the patterns, why this happens. Why is the distribution like this? Why are they selling the buffer stock? These are the questions that we have to establish so that we can craft policies to make sure that people are protected and the farmers are also protected,” Soriano said.
Soriano also said that there were government directives to improve the procurement of rice and shield it from corruption.
“The resolution also called for the use of private to private procurement, to make sure that it will be P2P, standards of procurement will be followed, and it will really go through international bidding,” Soriano said.
Guevarra added that the government would keep an eye on the prices of rice “very closely.”
“An unusual rise in price despite more than adequate supplies could only be the result of manipulation. The government will monitor rice traders very closely,” Guevarra said.
NFA chief urged to quit
Sen. Cynthia Villar on Tuesday said the abolition of the NFA was always an “option” while Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino 4th reiterated his call for the resignation of NFA officials for their failure to do their job.
Asked to comment on the reported shortage of government-subsidized rice in Metro Manila, Villar said, “It’s because they (NFA) don’t buy from the farmers.”
“It is supposed to be their mandate: to buy rice from farmers to sell to our poor fellowmen here in Manila. And they failed to do that,” the senator said in an interview.
“Perhaps, the NFA does not want to make any effort to go to the farms that’s why the traders had the advantage,” she added.
Villar, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, resumed on Tuesday the public hearing on the proposed rice tariffication, or the removal of restrictions on rice imports in favor of tariffs.
Under the bill, the committee will study the NFA’s mandate. “We might introduce amendments to the mandate of the NFA so we can prevent these problems. We need to change the system,” Villar said.
Sen. Grace Poe also called for the resignation of NFA Administrator Jason Aquino.
“If there is indeed a zero percent buffer of rice, this is an indication of the inefficiency of his leadership. The current NFA officials have been remiss in their duties and responsibilities,” Poe said.
WITH EIREENE JAIREE GOMEZ, RALPH U. VILLANUEVA AND BERNADETTE E. TAMAYO