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Farmers want Diokno, Balisacan fired over rice tariff cuts

Farmers groups on Friday called for the resignation of Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno and National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Secretary Arsenio Balisacan for their support for moves to cut tariff rates on rice imports from 35 percent to 10 percent.

“Today, we stand together to oppose, in the strongest terms, the efforts of Secretaries Diokno and Balisacan to serve the death sentence on rice farmers and other industry stakeholders by cutting or eliminating tariffs – our last refuge,” said a joint statement of the groups read by Samahanag Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) executive director Jayson Cainglet, during a public hearing of the Tariff Commission.

Diokno did not comment on calls for his resignation.

“Have a wonderful weekend!” he said on Viber when Manila Standard asked to get his side.

The Tariff Commission hearing was called to consider a proposal by the Foundation for Economic Freedom to reduce the tariff rate on rice from 35% to 10% temporarily for six months to bring down rice prices, which have been surging.

But farmers insisted that such a move would hurt them.

“The petition at hand is not for the welfare of consumers. Any claims about consumer benefits are at best, debatable. In reality, they are doormats to a sinister agenda. The rice farmers are the intended victims of the petition,” Cainglet said.

Importers vowed to cooperate with farmers, saying they expected lower levels of imports in the next months when harvest season is in full swing.

“Importers won’t bring in that much because we follow (a pattern) that when it’s local harvest time, most of us won’t even bring in stocks, if at all,” said Orly Manuntag of the Philippine Rice Industry Stakeholders Movement (PRISM).

SINAG; the Federation of Free Farmers; the Philippine Confederation of Grains Associations; the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas; Pambansang Mannalon, Mag-uuma, Magbabaul, Magsasaka ng Pilipinas; and theNational Movement for Food Sovereignty signed the joint statement. Diokno had earlier proposed reducing tariffs on imported rice temporarily from 35 percent to zero – or at most 10 percent—to arrest the surge in rice prices.

ESSENTIAL WORK. A farmer transplants rice seedlings in Sumapang Matanda, Malolos, Bulacan on Thursday. Transplanted rice seedlings are grown in nurseries before they are transferred into fields, either manually or by machine, and experts say they have higher yields and less weeding. Joan Bondoc 

Diokno said rice is the biggest contributor to inflation and said there was a need to reduce tariffs on rice.

Inflation, or the rate at which prices of goods and services rise, climbed to 5.3 percent in August, compared to 4.7 percent in July.

But Cainglet said farmers see the proposal is meant to increase the profits of importers in the guise of taming inflation.

“Such cuts do not benefit the poor consumers, because as much as 85 percent of imports are for premium grades of rice that cater to the relatively well-off consumers,” Cainglet said.

“At the current P60 per kilo of premium imported rice, a P6/kiloreduction arising from a lower tariff will only benefit the rich consumers and the importers,” he added.

He noted that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has not made any announcements about reviewing the tariff on rates, and has instead spoke on his unwillingness to import as a first choice.

Speaking at the Asian Summit 2023 in Singapore, President Marcos said one of the most important lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic was that it was unwise to rely too heavily on imports, calling the “the easy way out.”

“We cannot now continue to depend on importation, which is what hashappened for the Philippines… And the pandemic showed us that this wasnot a wise choice to have made and so we continued to develop our agriculture sector,” Marcos said.

Cainglet agreed. “Importations, more so unlimited rice importation through tariff reduction, are not and will never be the wise choice especially since we have an agriculture sector that is still recovering, with the full support of the President. What we need right now is to reassert ourcapacity to produce for our own agriculture and food needs, and to vigorously push for food self-sufficiency as we can never rely on the vagaries of the international market,” he said.

“Both secretaries have shown manifest partiality towards importers.

SMUGGLED RICE. An officer of the Bureau of Customs-Port of Zamboanga (BOC-POZ) lookls at some of the forfeited 42,180 sacks of rice worth P42 million after a raid of a warehouse in Brgy. San Jose Gusu, Zamboanga City. BOC Photo 

When farmers are suffering devastating losses, these economic managersare silent, laid back, and cite market forces to justify inaction. But when profits of importers are threatened by the very same ‘market forces’ they become activists and intervene in the market,” he said.

Cainglet said both Diokno and Balisacan must be held accountable for their “reckless” public statement of “not being consulted” by the President before he imposed price ceilings on rice.

“They are not only misrepresenting the President; they are giving him a bad name,” he said.

Diokno had earlier admitted that the economic team was “shocked” bythe announcement, as they were in Japan when the price caps were imposed on regular and well-milled rice.

In a TV interview, SINAG president Rosendo So said lowering tariffs would not necessarily help the country get more rice.

He also told ANC’s “Market Edge” that local farmers can produce enough rice to meet the country’s needs until March next year.

“We are harvesting… from now to December around 6.8 million metric tons of rice,” he said. “The majority of our supply can already supply [the country] up to March of next year. So what we need to do is plant again in September, October, November and December so our supply can reach until July next year.”

“If we can keep planting from January to April, we think we can supply our requirements until August next year without importing,” he added.

So also said he was expecting a good harvest because the impact of El Niño on agriculture wasn’t as bad as predicted.

Meanwhile, the director of the Bureau of Plant Industry, Gerald Glenn Panganiban, tried to explain a US Department of Agriculture report that said the Philippines has overtaken China in rice imports, saying China could have improved rice production.

“Is the assumption that we have started consuming more than our Chinese counterparts. That’s not so. They could have up-scaled their production technology and reduced the need for imports,” Panganiban said in a radio interview.

In its latest report, the USDA said the Philippines is now the world’s top rice importer. It estimated that the total rice importation of the Philippines for the 2022-2023 trade year would hit 3.9 million metric tons compared to China’s 3.5 million metric tons (MT).

But Panganiban questioned this projection, given the increased harvest in the last quarter, which he said would hit 1.4 million to 1.5 million MT.

In other developments:

* The Department of Agriculture estimated the total amount of agricultural damage and losses incurred by 10 regions due to the southwest monsoon and Typhoons “Egay” and “Falcon” reached P12 billion. The DA said the bad weather has affected 437,032 farmers and fishers in the Cordillera region, Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Mimaropa, Western Visayas, Zamboanga Peninsula, Soccsksargen, and Caraga. It said 250,174 hectares of agricultural areas were affected and production loss was estimated at 279,289 MT. The affected commodities include rice, corn, high-value crops, livestock and poultry, and fisheries. The damage and losses in rice amounted to PHP3.08 billion from 145,010 hectares and production loss was at 69,748 MT, or 0.35 percent of the 19.76 million MT total annual production target volume for rice.

* The Bureau of Customs (BOC) seized smuggled rice worth P42 million, following a raid of a warehouse in Brgy. San Jose Gusu, Zamboanga City. The BOC, in close coordination with Philippine Coast Guard Intelligence Group-Southwestern Mindanao conducted an inspection of a warehouse in Brgy. San Jose Gusu after receiving information that smuggled rice was being kept in the warehouse.

* Assistant Minority Leader Arlene Brosas on Friday appealed to the government to junk the Rice Liberalization Law. Brosas, nominee of Gabriela Party-list, made the call in light of the recent report from the USDA that the Philippines is the world’s top rice importer for the marketing year 2022-2023. She said the report should prompt the Marcos administration to junk RA 11203 or the Rice Liberalization Law, which strengthened the country’s import dependency and worsened the trade deficit.

— Julito G. Rada and Vito Barcelo

Credit belongs to: www.manilastandard.net

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