The Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, reiterated on Friday three ambitious goals: attain rice self-sufficiency, limit rice imports to the minimum access volume, and establish a buffer stock to feed the population for six months in times of a crisis.
To achieve these goals, he is aiming to increase rice production by at least one metric ton per hectare each harvest and instructed the National Food Authority to increase rice inventory to more than 600 percent above what is required by law, which is 30 days’ supply in the lean months and15 days supply in other times.
Piñol had earlier presented to the Cabinet the preparations his department is making to tackle the impact of La Niña that is expected to hit the country by the coming November or December.
Meanwhile, his plan for rice buffer stocks met with skepticism at the National Food Authority. An official of the agency pointed out that a higher inventory of buffer stock would only result in rice rotting in warehouses because of NFA’s inability to dispose old rice stocks in storage. Even worse, the source said, a massive rice inventory would also create depressed farm gate prices of palay.
The official also said that it would be problematic for the Duterte government to institutionalize a 6-month buffer stock, noting the financial and logistical restrictions facing the agency.
“Where would they put the rice stocks? Are they going to build or rent new warehouses? Where would they get the budget?” he said.
“Let’s say we have the funding and that they can buy more palay, the NFA’s capacity to dry and mill the grain were very limited,” he added.
The official also said that it is “incumbent to remind the good secretary” of the NFA’s mandate.
“Our mandate is to ensure availability of rice. At the same time, we must also ensure that the price of rice is low enough to remain affordable to low-income consumers. We are not here to compete with commercial rice traders,” the official said.
NFA, the source said, can keep rice stocks in good condition for only six months and palay for nine months. “A considerable volume of rice in NFA warehouses were more than six months old, while daily withdrawal at government depositories were at its lowest due to the substantial presence of commercial rice in the market at competitive prices,” the official said.
At the beginning of last month (June), the Philippine Statistics Authority data showed that the country’s total rice stock inventory was good for three months—with stocks in the households sufficient for 34 days, those in NFA depositories for 32 days, and those in commercial warehouses for 29 days.
Rice stocks was pegged at 3.24 million metric tons, or 7.15 percent higher than the 3.02 million metric tons level in June 2015, but 12.31 percent lower than the previous month’s inventory level of 3.69 million metric tons.
Of this month’s total rice, 36.13 percent were with the households, 30.74 percent in commercial warehouses, and 33.13 percent were in NFA depositories. The latter comprised 85.39 percent of the rice imported.
The NFA was created with the intention of protecting the interests of both rice producers and consumers. As such, the agency’s two primary mandates are to stabilize the price of rice and to ensure food security.
The price stabilization mandate means that the NFA tries to influence prices on two fronts. At one front, it must support the palay farm despite the reforms undertaken in the past gate price at a level that is enough to ensure a reasonable return for rice farmers.
A well-placed source in the Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, questioned Piñol’s target to increase rice productivity and areas, saying that Philippines remained heavily reliant to the availability of rain with 60 percent of harvest attributed to rain-fed areas.
The source added that increasing productivity by one metric ton per hectare per harvest would entail massive funding support from the government.
“Piñol’s statement is very general. In specific areas, were irrigation is not yet available, this is possible. However, increasing productivity in majority of irrigated areas, where utilization of hybrid seeds and farm mechanization are relatively high, this in no long viable,” the sources.
“This will also be possible if Piñol will subsidize everything from fertilizers to seeds to mechanization, not just irrigation,” he said.
Piñol earlier said that new areas for planting rice would be opened during his term which will increase production by 4.8 million metric tons of rice, more than enough to cover the 1.8 million MT annual rice shortage.
Piñol also said that he has employed the service of Project NOAH for identifying suitable lands, noting that more than 2.5 million hectares showed potential as new rice areas.
Studies are also being made to determine the viability of low-cost communal irrigation projects, instead of maintaining irrigation facilities that have become rundown, to reduce production cost and help farmers become more competitive. Rice production cost in the Philippines is higher than in Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Critics said that rice sufficiency in the Philippines is unlikely within the next 10 years, citing geographical conditions, lack of agriculture infrastructure and failed implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
The Philippines has less comparative advantage in rice production compared with major rice exporters like India, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam—all blessed with the world’s large rivers. Besides, the Philippines is a calamity prone nation with an average of 20 typhoons hitting the country annually.