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Sugar import order probed

Palace says DA usec signing for BBM unauthorized, heads may roll

Malacañang on Thursday said an investigation is underway over the unauthorized signing of a document directing the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar.

RISING SUGAR. A worker stacks different kinds of repacked sugar at a store in Quezon City on August 11, after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. thumbed down a proposal to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar amid reports of a looming supply shortage. Manny Palmero 

“An investigation is ongoing to determine whether any act that would cause the President to lose trust and confidence in his officials can be found or if there is malice or negligence involved,” said Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles.

“In such a case, if such findings are made, then the only determination left will be how many heads are going to roll.”

Cruz-Angeles described as “illegal” Sugar Order No. 4 issued by the Sugar Regulatory Administration, which directed the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar.

“The chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Board is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. As such, the chairman sets the date of any meetings or convening of the Sugar Regulatory Board and its agenda. No such meeting was authorized by the President or such a resolution, likewise, was not authorized,” she said.

Angeles said the resolution appears to have been signed by Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian on behalf of Marcos.

“He was not authorized to sign such a resolution because the President did not authorize the importation,” Angeles said.

She said agricultural importations were a sensitive matter.

“Sugar is one such importation which we take great care with. It is a balancing act. The importation has to be carefully studied to protect both the consumer against the rising prices of basic commodities (and) ensuring at the same time that we do not destroy the local industry,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) is worried that consumers would once again shoulder the cost of increased prices of goods such as beverages, breads, and processed meats owing to the sugar shortage.

“At this point in time, there’s really a (sugar) shortage. Even the harvest will not cover up the shortage,” said George Barcelon, PCCI chairman.

“I think (manufacturers) don’t have a choice; they need to raise their prices. We also don’t want (sugar) farmers (to suffer), they are suffering. But if you think about the number of people in the sugar plantation compared to the number of people consuming, it’s up to the government to weigh on these factors,” he added in a television interview.

A farmers’ group, the Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) earlier lauded Marcos’ decision to reject the importation of 300,000 MT of sugar.

Sinag Executive Director Jayson Cainglet said the SRA and the Department of Agriculture should heed the order of the chief executive to support local production.

Another group, the United Sugar Producers Federation (Unifed), nixed the planned importation, saying some local sugar producers harvested sugarcane early and that five local millers were already accepting orders for milling.

Manuel Lamata, president ng Unifed, told ABS-CBN local producers could make up for the supposed shortage if weather conditions did not hurt the quality of their sugar.

“If we import, it should be refined. If we’re importing raw sugar, imagine that’s 150,000 metric tons. Where would we sell our new produce of raw sugar? If we did, our prices would be super low,” Lamata added.

On Wednesday evening, Cruz-Angeles said Marcos had rejected an SRA proposal to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar.

Agriculture Undersecretary Kristine Evangelista had said the Philippines needed to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar to stabilize the market amid rising prices.

She said there was a shortage of sugar after Typhoon Odette damaged sugarcane crops.

The SRA, in an order dated Aug. 9, said it has approved the plan, which sought to import raw and refined sugar for delivery no later than Nov. 30.

It said raw sugar production for the crop year ending this month is expected “to drop from 16 percent to 1.8 million metric tons.”

SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica earlier said in a radio interview that the SRA was looking at importing 300,000 metric tons of sugar to replenish the country’s supply, which he said was near depletion.

In a separate interview, Serafica said the SRA is looking at importing sugar from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Community bakers said they supported the President’s decision to junk the importation plan.

“I was encouraged by the statement from the Palace. I think the President is thinking of some means of coping with the inflationary price of sugar other than importation,” said Asosasyon ng Panaderong Pilipino president Lucito Chavez.

“I guess there is something wrong and that wrong is being corrected by the Office of the President. I assume the President is thinking of a plan to lower the price of sugar and, maybe, ways of augmenting supply,” he added.

The group called also called on the government to release the rest of the sugar quedans (proof of ownership of a certain amount of sugar), if there are still any left, to give consumers a break from the high cost of the commodity.

“Only the SRA can say if there are still stocks left. And if there are no more stocks left, the Palace should address this. Importation should be the last recourse if all known means to augment supply and lower the cost have failed,” Chavez said.

One way of dealing with the crisis, he suggested, is to reformulate the constitution of breads, especially pandesal by using less sugar, as European bakers are doing with their breads.

“In that sense, we stay true to the nature of pandesal being a salty bread instead of a sweet bread. This will also address some health concerns like obesity and diabetes,” Chavez said.

Sugar is a major ingredient in bread making, next to flour.

Prices have doubled in the last few months due to scarcity of supply.

Sugar retails at a range of P97 to P115 per kilogram for refined sugar and P85 to P98 for washed sugar.

In other developments:

• Senator Imee Marcos has condemned the unauthorized and fraudulent use of the Office of the President to justify the importation of sugar. Marcos described it as “ultimate proof that thick-faced agricultural smugglers are lording it over at the Department of Agriculture.” She lauded her brother’s rejection of the importation plan and called for an immediate reshuffle of the department “to dismantle criminal syndicates within the government.”

• Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda, chairman of the House ways and means committee, welcomed the President’s move as well. “The President’s decision highlights just how sensitive this issue is. The sugar sector needs 1.3 workers per hectare cultivated, versus just 0.7 workers for the agriculture sector in general, and 0.6 workers for rice,” Salceda said. He said imports would hurt sugar workers even more than rice farmers. Salceda also noted that 150,000 MT of the proposed 300,000 MT was supposed to be for bottler’s grade sugar, or sugar that sweetened beverage makers use.

Without such imports, the beverage makers will likely resort to other sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup.

HFCS-sweetened beverages are taxed at higher excise tax rates (P12/liter) than sugar-sweetened beverages (P6/liter) and these taxes can benefit the domestic sugar sector, he said. With Macon Ramos-Araneta and Maricel V. Cruz

 

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