Senators seek shake-up of ‘unproductive’ NFA

Senators on Thursday came down hard on the National Food Authority, denouncing the “consistent failure” of NFA officials to fulfill their mandate amid allegations of irregularities hounding the agency.

In separate statements, Sen. Sherwin T. Gatchalian sought the NFA’s abolition to “spare taxpayers from the burden of subsidizing its inefficient and unproductive” operations, while Sen. Francis N. Pangi-linan pressed for a top-level revamp of the embattled agency.

“First things first: Fire the top management of NFA,” Pangilinan said, citing the rice crisis in Zamboanga as “proof” that reforms put in place under the Aquino administration “have been overturned by greed, incompetence and corruption.”

Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate Economic Affairs Committee, said that the NFA has become “a liability to the government” given its continously plunging annual revenues.

He said financial data obtained by his committee confirmed NFA’s revenue “shrank 38 percent to  P17.93 billion in 2017, from P29.3 billion in 2016. But NFA’s losses had swelled to P150 billion.”

Gatchalian also pinned the blame for the insufficient supply and rice price hikes on NFA operations.

At the same time, Gatchalian took note of a Bureau of the Treasury report that the NFA was the biggest recipient of subsidies provided to government-owned  and-controlled corporations (GOCCs) in June 2018.

“Record shows that the treasury department allocated P5.2 billion of the total P9.72 GOCC subsidy released that month for the NFA’s food security program,” the senator said, adding the Commission on Audit called out the NFA for using GOCC subsidy funds to settle outstanding debts, as the funds were intended “specifically to stabilize price and supply of rice and corn.”

Gatchalian said taxpayers continue to shoulder the losses of the NFA “despite its consistent failure to fulfill its mandate to stabilize the market price of rice so that every Filipino family will be able to put enough rice on their plates. It’s time to abolish this unproductive agency and put taxpayers’ money to better use.”

The senator signaled support for the suggestion of Duterte administration’s economic managers to let market forces determine rice prices instead, agreeing this would “make the country’s foremost staple food more affordable for all.”

He confirmed plans to enlist wide support for early passage—when Congress resumes session next week—of Senate Bill 1839, that Gatchalian filed to replace quantitative restrictions on rice with a “reasonable” tariff to make the country’s rice-producing provinces more competitive. Early enactment of the remedial legislation is expected to give President Duterte elbow room to adjust tariff rates on imported rice, to regulate rice exports, and “impose special rice safeguards to ensure food security for Filipinos.”

Rice crisis

This developed as Pangilinan expressed apprehension over the brewing rice crisis in the South.

“I am afraid the rice crisis in Zamboanga City today is a combination of both corruption and incompetence by top government officials in cahoots with wealthy private players in the rice industry taking advantage of the rising prices to profit handsomely,” he said.

“Powerful and influential forces both in and out of the government are making a killing in manipulating both the availability of NFA rice stocks in particular, and the rice importation and procurement processes in general,” Pangilinan added.

Recalling his stint as NFA chairman in 2014, Pangilinan said the next NFA administration must see to it “that NFA rice is available in the market, and not diverted and rebagged.”

Pangilinan proposed that both the NFA bureaucracy, as well as unscrupulous traders, should also be made to account for their acts.

“We filed cases against both NFA managers in Bicol, Pampanga, Iloilo, and Surigao and private rice traders there to stop the diversion. We also increased supply of NFA rice by 78 percent in NCR within a two-week period to dissuade private traders from keeping prices up,” he added.

The senator suggested the need to put in place an “NFA Council-led open, transparent and discretion-free” government-to-government rice importation process.

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Butch Fernandez is BusinessMirror’s senior political reporter based at the Senate. He has covered Malacanang (3 presidencies), the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, local governments and defense since 1984.

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