For years, past administrations have relied on statistical agencies to provide the necessary data that would enable officials to make intelligent decisions concerning the rice supply-and-demand situation. Before the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) was set up, the Department of Agriculture (DA) had the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS), which churned out monthly data on national rice and corn inventory. The BAS and other similar units, such as the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics, were transferred under the supervision of the PSA after former President Benigno S. Aquino III signed into law Republic Act 10625 in September 2013.
But, as far as Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol is concerned, the data on rice inventory from the national statistics agency cannot be trusted. The DA chief on Tuesday said he will urge the President to create a task force that will conduct the mandatory inspection of government and commercial-rice warehouses all over the country. The rationale behind this is to ensure that before the Duterte administration makes any decision concerning rice importation for the first time, the President and his men are armed with accurate data.
There is nothing wrong with this, except that the timing is ill advised. For one, the lean season in the Philippines, when strong typhoons usually hit the country, will start in less than three months. Also, asking private traders to open their warehouses would require some “creative cajoling” on the part of the government for this to happen. And if this does not work, the courts may be the national government’s last resort to get this done.
Unfortunately, the Duterte administration can no longer drag its feet when it comes to the country’s rice-supply situation, as the lean season will kick off in July. Until now, the President and his men are still unsure as to what should be done about the National Food Authority’s (NFA) pronouncement that it would need nearly 500,000 metric tons to beef up its buffer stock. This buffer stock is critical, particularly in areas that are prone to natural disasters. That some provinces in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao were rocked by earthquakes in recent weeks also make it difficult for people to trust the pronouncement of government officials that the country has enough food come the lean season.
The availability of enough rice in government warehouses would ensure that unscrupulous traders would not be able to profit from the misery of their countrymen. It is part of the NFA’s mandate to stabilize rice supply and prices; hence, the need to import and buy rice from local farmers to increase its stockpile before the lean season kicks in. The NFA rice, sold at P27 per kilogram at any given time, also prevents price spikes that would make the staple inaccessible to Filipino consumers. The President and his men should urge lawmakers to fast-track the passage of bills aimed at amending the functions of the NFA if they want the government to get out of subsidizing imported rice.
Fixing the problems besetting the farm sector, in general, would require an overhaul of many things, particularly the regulatory environment that has made it difficult for the agriculture sector to increase its contribution to the economy. It is good that the President understands the need to solve the root cause of the ills plaguing Philippine agriculture. But while the Duterte administration is working toward implementing structural changes, it should bear in mind that Filipinos confront everyday realities that they cannot put off, such as the need for affordable food.