AGRICULTURE Secretary Emmanuel Piñol on Friday conceded that the government should no longer be involved in rice importation to ease the debt burden of the National Food Authority (NFA).
But the state grains agency should be allowed to do a final importation of the staple, the Cabinet official said in
an interview, without going into details.
“My suggestion to the President, when we met last April 26, was that this should be the last importation by the NFA. In the future, the NFA should no longer intervene, it should only be concerned with local procurement,” Piñol said.
“Let the private sector do the importation. Let them fill the gap in our production through importation. The NFA will only drown in debt because of repeated importation,” he added.
The President is studying the proposal, the Agriculture chief said.
A dispute between NFA Administrator Jason Laureano Aquino and the NFA Council over the former’s decision not to extend private rice import permits beyond February led to the sacking of an undersecretary under Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, who heads the council.
Aquino wanted to pursue government-to-government deals that could further bloat the NFA’s debts, and was accused of favoring certain private rice importers.
Debt at P157B, not P211B
Aquino denied earlier reports, citing official documents released by the Department of Finance (DoF), that the grains agency’s debts have ballooned to as much as P211 billion as a result of massive rice importation.
“The current NFA management is paying for these debts, which ballooned from only P10.7 billion in 2000 to P177 billion by June 30, 2010. The NFA accumulated these loans to finance the implementation of food programs that were not sustainable during those times,” Aquino said.
“The figure released by DoF, totaling P210.73 billion, is not the amount of NFA loans. As stated in the document, it was the total support given to NFA as of December 31, 2016. The total loan was only P157.02 billion as of that date,” Aquino explained.
Piñol said the government should start importing rice now that the harvest season is over, adding that he would propose a buffer stock of at least three months.
“I never said that we should not import rice. Our position is that if we need to import rice, then the right time is now as it would no longer affect prices of local palay,” he told reporters.
Piñol also said that rice importation before the lean months, the size of which had yet to be decided, would arrest the unusual price movements of rice in the local market as a result of hoarding and price manipulation by rice traders.
“If we are going to import, we should no longer make noise out of it because it tends to push prices upward,” he added.
Piñol pointed out that the Department of Agriculture (DA) has no voice in the NFA Council, which decides on rice imports.
Piñol said the Office of the Cabinet Secretary had promised to allow a DA representative to participate in decision-making at the interagency NFA Council.
“I have already talked with Secretary [Leoncio] Evasco, who said that he would allow me to sit at the NFA Council,” Piñol said.
Evasco has yet to reply to his letter. “I don’t know what happened,” Piñol said.
Under Presidential Decree 1770, or the National Food Authority Act, the NFA Council should include the heads of the Departments of Agriculture, Finance, Trade and Industry, the governor of the central bank, the chairman of the Development Bank of the Philippines, the president of Land Bank of the Philippines, the director general of the National Economic and Development Authority, and a farmers’ representative.
The DA was booted out of the NFA Council after former President Benigno Aquino 3rd signed Executive Order 165, which transferred the NFA along with the National Irrigation Administration, Philippine Coconut Authority and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority to the Office of the President.