Lawmakers on Wednesday raised concerns over the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) “unfulfilled promise” of stabilizing rice prices after the harvest season.
In a House Committee on Agriculture and Food briefing, representatives from the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the National Food Authority (NFA) were called upon to explain the disparities between the “promised stabilization” and the current market prices of rice.
House Deputy Majority Leader for Communications and ACT-CIS Rep. Erwin Tulfo expressed apprehensions about the unfulfilled commitment made by DA officials in July, August, and September regarding the anticipated reduction in rice prices.
The briefing followed a recent surprise visit by Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez and Tulfo to the Farmers Market in Cubao, Quezon City, to evaluate essential commodity prices and ensure compliance with suggested retail prices.
Tulfo observed that despite the promised stabilization, rice prices have remained high, fluctuating between P52 and P60 per kilogram.
“Whatever happened to that promise that [the price of rice] would go down because people were waiting? Why didn’t it go down?”
For his part, NFA chief Roderico Bioco cited various factors contributing to the surge in rice prices, including a production shortfall between 2021 and 2022, low fertilizer uptake affecting yields, and international factors, such as Indonesia’s announcement to buy 2 million tons of rice.
He said the combination of these factors, along with import parity being higher than the landed cost, has led to higher rice prices in the local market.
At the hearing, House Committee on Agriculture and Food Chairman Mark Enverga said they expect that the information presented by the DA and its attached agencies will guide the committee in taking the necessary steps to address concerns about the escalating prices of agricultural commodities, particularly rice and chicken eggs, and prevent further complications.
“It is our duty to inform the consuming public of the real situation as reports vary. We know that this time of the year is one of the busiest for all of us, but please bear with us. We need to keep everyone informed,” Enverga said.
“We need correct information for us to assess the situation and help make the necessary steps to address such concerns and avoid the same mistakes.”
Amid high rice prices due to external market pressures, DA Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian reported an increase in domestic rice production, leading many importers to cease importing as buying locally became more cost-effective.
With the current price scenario, he noted that farmers can sell their produce at a higher margin, bringing increased income compared to the previous year when high fertilizer costs impacted their earnings.
While Nueva Ecija Rep. Ria Vergara welcomed this, she raised concerns about traders manipulating prices.
“I’m very happy for the farmers. They deserve that. But we cannot also just allow the capitalists to dictate those high prices at the expense of the consumers.”
She emphasized the crucial role of the NFA as a market stabilizer and proposed that it act as a buffer, setting reasonable prices to maintain equilibrium and prevent unjustifiable price hikes by capitalists.
By having the NFA sell rice at a certain price, Vergara said it would discourage capitalists from selling at exorbitant rates, creating a balanced and fair environment for all stakeholders.
“No one’s going to buy it because NFA is selling at P29 or P32. That way, these capitalists will buy at the right [farmgate]price, not below P19 but P22 or P23. So everyone’s happy. No one’s making absurd amounts of money.”
Earlier in the hearing, Bioco said the NFA, which is tasked with providing stability in palay prices, revealed challenges in purchasing local rice due to the government-set guaranteed floor and ceiling prices.
He said that while the NFA can’t follow market prices, strategies were proposed to alleviate pressure, including expanding production and exploring alternative sources like India, which allows the exemption of 295,000 metric tons of white rice from the export ban.
Meanwhile, Speaker Ferdinand Romualdez reiterated Congress’s commitment to ensuring that traders do not exploit the holiday season to increase prices of basic commodities.
“The Christmas season is meant to be a time of giving and compassion, and we want to make sure that the prices of goods are affordable to a great majority of our people.”
Image credits: AP/Joeal Calupitan