THE National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) on Tuesday said prices of government-subsidized rice jumped a week after the agency announced its buffer stock would only be enough for two days.
Mercedita Sombilla, assistant secretary for regional development, said that before NFA came out with a press release on February 6, “prices went even down, even decreased.”
She made the remark in answer to the query of Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino 4th concerning reports that consumers could no longer find the P27-per-kilo NFA rice. Low-priced rice in the market costs P42 per kilo, he said.
“You mean after the NFA announced that the buffer stock will only last for two days, prices went up?” Aquino asked Sombilla.
She replied, “It affected [the prices]. There were speculations from the traders. People panicked. The week after the press release, prices shot up.”
Sombilla also said that there was, in fact, an increase in market penetration of NFA rice. “There was a 245 percent increase in distribution or market penetration in January. And they are saying now that they no longer have stocks?”
NFA Administrator Jason Aquino said that as of February 27, the country’s buffer stock stood at just 1.7 days, way down from the required 15-day buffer stock at any given time and 30 days at the onset of the lean months of July to September.
‘NFA Council pressured’
Sen. Cynthia Villar, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, weighed in, saying: “I think what she (Sombilla) was saying is that it has psychological effect.”
Sen. Grace Poe advised the NFA officials “to be cautious, balancing transparency but also offering an alternative.”
Aquino replied: “Yes, we did our job.”
Villar contradicted him, saying. “What job did you do? The mandate of the NFA is to buy at P17 per kilo palay (paddy rice) from the farmer to make sure that traders would not take advantage of our farmers.”
“Now, you failed to buy at P17. You then issue a press release that you don’t have [enough]NFA rice. What is the reason for that? Why? Do you want that to happen?” she asked.
Villar accused the NFA chief of exerting pressure on the interagency NFA Council to allow rice imports. The council issued an authority to import 250,000 metric tons of rice earlier this month because of the supposed shortage.
The NFA chief explained that the source of NFA buffer stock is local procurement, but it was unable to buy clean and dry rice at P17 because the farm gate price stood at P21.
“The farmer is selling that to the traders not to the NFA,” he said.
Villar retorted: “Senator [Loren] Legarda always says that in Antique, the farm gate price is P8 per kilo. [Agriculture] Secretary Emmanuel] Piñol said it was at P10 to P12. So, don’t tell me that.”
“Don’t limit yourself to Central and Northern Luzon because the NFA has facilities in 87 provinces. Why not go to Mindanao and in Bicol, in Palawan? Why do we have to stick to Northern Luzon?”
Piñol echoed Villar and said the reported shortage in NFA stocks was being used “to justify the increase in the price of rice in the market” and the “additional importation of rice.”
The Agriculture chief said there was no need to import rice because the country was 96-percent sufficient in rice, with a record harvest of 19.4 million metric tons last year.
Imported rice to arrive in June
The NFA said it expected imported rice to arrive in June, leaving poor Filipinos with no choice but to settle for rice with prices ranging from P42 to P45 per kilo in the meantime.
Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara called on authorities to ensure that the poorest consumers benefit from government-subsidized rice amid allegations of irregularities in the distribution of rice by the NFA.
Based on the study by the Senate Economic Planning Office, the government policy of stabilizing the price of rice—both for producers and consumers—cost the government P45 billion in the past 10 years.
Poe urged the government to send to court suspected big-time rice smuggler Davidson Bangayan, also known as David Tan, as well as other alleged members of syndicates or smugglers “operating under the nose of the NFA.”
The government had so far filed three cases against suspected rice smugglers and illegal importers in Cebu, Subic, Zamboanga under Republic Act No. 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016, a result of a Senate inquiry in the previous Congress.