Sugar sector allegations against Piñol are ridiculous

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Ben D. Kritz

IN a rare show of unity, sugar producers and labor groups have ganged up on Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol after he asked that Sugar Order (SO) 3, which imposes an import cap and stiff tariffs on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), be deferred pending consultations with the beverage industry, the biggest user of the sweetener.

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Obviously, it is in the best interests of the local sugar industry that its own products be preferred by beverage and other food producers over imported HFCS, but the group’s reaction to Piñol’s insistence that a proper process be followed is uncivilized, and will ultimately be self-destructive.

The sugar interests have rather unimaginatively accused Piñol of being paid off by the beverage industry—most of the activists’ anger is directed against Coca-Cola, the largest company in the sector—to delay implementation of SO 3. In a traffic-snarling rally in Bacolod on Monday, about 6,000 protestors demanded Piñol’s resignation as well as a boycott of Coke products.

The accusation that the Agriculture Secretary has been corrupted by big business is a ridiculous notion. Piñol has been a standout in the Duterte administration; not all of his ideas have been good ones (the free irrigation proposal, which he hasn’t let go of yet, is more than a little unrealistic), but he has distinguished himself by his energetic dedication to the job, and his zealous pro-farmer stance. A farmer himself, he is one of the few department heads in the administration—or in the past couple of administrations, for that matter—who has turned out to be a perfect fit for the post.

What the sugar activists seem to have conveniently forgotten is that Piñol, as chair of the Sugar Regulatory Authority (SRA), has favored import controls on HFCS from the start, and was probably the first sympathetic ear to listen to the sugar industry when the issue was first raised—which, as he pointed out in a spirited response to the allegations hurled against him, didn’t happen until the price of Philippine sugar dropped by about 28 percent.

He explained that the reason he has called for a deferment of SO 3 is that he was prevented by bad weather from attending a meeting in Davao on February 16, where President Duterte approved the SRA’s draft proposal for SO 3. Piñol’s description of the circumstances implies that the sugar interests and their advocates in the SRA pulled a fast one on Duterte, pressing for the approval before the manufacturers had a chance to see a presentation of the proposed regulation and respond to it as the procedure should be.

Given Piñol’s clearly protectionist policy orientation, there is no way he would do anything other than follow through with SO 3—perhaps with some adjustments to the details, but his desire to meet with manufacturing stakeholders suggests that whatever those are, they would make the whole measure easier to carry out, having the buy-in of all concerned.

Coca-Cola, in a careful response to the calls for a boycott, pointed out that the beverage industry already uses about 40 percent of the Philippine sugar output. Presumably, the industry would use more, if the sugar wasn’t unattractively priced due to the sugar sector’s slavish, profit-bound dependence on the export market. That market, in which the US is the biggest destination, is likely to shrink dramatically in the next year or two due to the anti-trade stance being taken by US President Trump, at which point the local sugar industry is going to need to be on good terms with the local market.

Antagonizing both that market and its potentially biggest advocate and protector is an abysmally stupid move on the part of the sugar sector, and its charge of corruption against Secretary Piñol is unconscionable. As he rather darkly suggested in the angry reaction to it he posted on his Facebook page, the sugar industry has a reputation as one of the country’s biggest exploiters of labor, and probably should not be hurling unsupported charges of impropriety at anyone.

SO 3 is a good idea, and good ideas are worth doing right. Waiting to implement the new regulation until a consensus—or as close to one as can be achieved—is formed can only benefit all concerned. The activists behind the protests against Piñol owe him an apology, and need to sit down and shut up and let the man do his job.

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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