Fast-track passage of rice tariff bill

In February the government assured the World Trade Organization (WTO) that the Philippines will have a new rice tariff law by June. The pronouncement was made nearly a year after Manila was supposed to have amended the law—Republic Act (RA) 8178—to  finally scrap the quantitative restriction (QR) on rice. The assurance was given by Philippine officials who attended a meeting of the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture in Geneva, almost a year after the special waiver on the special treatment on rice lapsed on July 1, 2017.

The QR is a nontariff measure that allowed the government to limit the entry of cheap rice imports. The WTO permitted the Philippines to impose the QR for more than two decades, or from 1995 until 2017. In seeking its extension in 2004, Manila argued that millions of rice farmers depend on the staple for their livelihood.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol had wanted to seek another extension but the interagency Committee on Tariff and Related Matters (CTRM) shot down the idea. In a news briefing in January 2017, Piñol said the CTRM reasoned out that there was no longer enough time to negotiate for it. It would take about two years to set up and conclude the negotiations. Duterte’s economic managers were also against the QR extension, saying that the nontariff measure had effectively made milled rice more expensive.

The WTO’s special waiver lapsed on June 30 last year but because RA 8178, which allowed the continued implementation of the rice import caps, had not been amended, the nontariff measure is still in place. Congress had targeted to approve a proposal that would amend the Agricultural Tariffication Act last year. But it was placed on the back burner because lawmakers had to prioritize the tax-reform package—dubbed as the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion—and the 2018 national budget.

Lawmakers tried to have the proposal approved before they went on their Lenten break in March, but they ran out of time again. Now that sessions have resumed, lawmakers must make good on their promise. The government had committed to the WTO that Manila will have a rice tariff law in place by June.

While other governments normally respect the internal processes of a sovereign nation, it would not look good if the Philippines continues to drag its foot on removing the nontariff measure. Aside from the commitment made by Philippine trade officials, the President himself wants to have the quota removed. This cannot be done if RA 8178 is not amended.

Congress must focus on putting in place a new rice tariff law so lawmakers can move on to other things that also demand their attention such as reorganizing or reengineering the National Food Authority (NFA). The recent confusion over the government’s rice stocks stems from the fact that officials want one thing but the law prevents them from doing it. For instance, the NFA is mandated to maintain a buffer stock for emergency purposes, but the national government did not want to allow the food agency to import. A measure that would reorganize the NFA and redefine its role would certainly fix this.




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Turning Points 2018