THE sugar industry said the government agency regulating the commodity needs to allocate sugar imports on a 50-50 basis between industrial users and consumers, in keeping with its mandate.

“Our suggestion is that (imports) should not be given to just selected industrial users. The mandate of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) is to regulate supply. At least 50% was to go to industrial users and 50% to domestic users or wet markets so that sugar prices won’t rise this high,” Luzon Federation of Sugar Producers, Inc. President Cornelio V. Toreja said during a Congress hearing on Monday.

The hearing was called in response to the unauthorized signing of Sugar Order (SO) No. 4, which the Palace has since clarified did not have the approval of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.

The incident has led to the resignation of Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian, who acknowledged last week that he signed the order on behalf of Mr. Marcos. On Monday, SRA board member and millers representative Roland B. Beltran, who also signed the order, resigned from the board, citing “health reasons.”

SO No. 4 would have allowed the import of 300,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar. 

“We agree there is a need to import refined sugar to address high domestic and stabilize supply. There is no need to import raw sugar. Imports should be open to accredited traders with track records and the use (of the imports) should not be confined to a specific sector,” Mr. Toreja added.

Philippine Sugar Millers Association President Pablo L. Lobregat said that rising sugar prices would have been averted if a previous sugar order had been implemented on time.

“If SO No. 3 was able to be realized, I don’t think we would have this rise in prices to astronomical heights. Therefore, SO No. 4 is compensating for the additional requirements given that the final figures of sugar (due to be produced and held in inventory) are not sufficient,” he said.

SO No. 3 was issued in February and authorized the import of 200,000 MT of refined sugar. The import plan was delayed by two separate temporary restraining orders (TROs) filed against it.

According to SRA Administrator Hermenegildo R. Serafica, the TRO issued by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Sagay City has been dismissed, while the one filed with the RTC in Himamaylan City remains active.

Mr. Serafica added that not all shipments ordered under SO No. 3 have arrived.

As of Aug. 12, a total of 185,633.0 MT to be imported under SO No. 3 are covered by SRA clearances and actual arrivals are at 166,234.90 MT.

“The filed cases stymied the imported sugar. The elections also (resulted in) some delay, until finally it was noticed by everyone that (claims) there was enough sugar were not true. Look at what happened to the prices,” Mr. Lobregat said.

“The SRA is supposed to make sure that the supply of sugar is balanced, protecting consumers from shortages and making sure it does not import too much sugar, which is detrimental to the producers. The SRA has been in contact with different players in the producer sector. We always try to find a balance of supply. This year has been a difficult year,” he added.

Mr. Lobregat said that the issue with SO No. 4 is an administrative or inter-office miscommunication, and that the necessity of importing sugar remains.

“If there’s a (deficiency in the) process between SRA, DA (the Department of Agriculture) and the President as secretary of DA, it has nothing to do with the supply or lack of sugar today. SO No. 4 was done in consultation with producers to ensure (sufficient) volumes for imported sugar to bring down prices to acceptable levels,” he added.

Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura Chairman Rosendo O. So said that the SRA should inspect warehouses to verify supply levels.

“The SRA should call on all groups, even the distribution pipeline, to determine whether there is a shortage or not. Wherever we go, we see sugar. We do not see a shortage,” he said.

“We also found out that the production shortfall is just 100,000 MT. So why is the SRA (authorizing the import of) 300,000 MT?” he added.

United Sugar Producers Federation President Manuel R. Lamata said the adequacy of supply is not being reflected in rising prices.

“You go to the wet market or supermarket, there is sugar, but it is too expensive. Even us producers are complaining. Prices are higher than normal because of high fuel prices and fertilizer,” he told BusinessWorld Live on Monday.

“I cannot blame the traders, that is their job. It’s their business, it’s trading. They buy low, they sell high. But it’s a different conversation altogether on the manipulation on behalf of the government,” he added.

Farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said that an estimated 700,000 farm workers in sugarcane haciendas and 24,000 workers in sugar mills have been affected by the sugar crisis.

“In Negros, some 310,000 sugar farm workers and 18,000 sugar mill workers are affected by lack of work and livelihood due to the dead season between planting and harvest,” known in the industry as “tiempo muertos,” the KMP said in a statement.

“Year after year, sugar farm workers endure hunger and poverty during the dead season while unscrupulous officials cannot wait to rake in profits from sugar imports.” 

Former agrarian reform secretary and KMP member Rafael V. Mariano said that the Congress must investigate what is behind the sharp spike in sugar prices.

“We must know whether there is price manipulation in sugar or the steadily rising cost of sugar production, specifically fuel and fertilizer prices, are the leading factors behind the sugar price hike,” he said.

“Congress should also conscientiously exercise its oversight capacity and determine that decades of liberalization and importation led to the decline and near-destruction of domestic agriculture. We need more legislation that will truly uplift the state of local agriculture and food producers, especially farmers,” he added.

In his official YouTube channel, Mr. Marcos said that before issuing another sugar order, earlier imports must be consumed.

“We currently have previous imports in our inventory. Before we import, we need to finish this supply first. We do not want to resort to imports. However, if the current supply is not enough, we are forced to import,” he said.

“If we do not import and the supply is not adequate, then prices will rise. We need to ascertain that whatever amount we import fits our needs, and not more,” he added.

He brought up the possibility of 150,000 MT worth of imports by October.

“It’s possible that by October, our local supply will be diminished. Maybe that is the time we import, but not a large volume, not as large as 300,000 MT. Around 150,000 MT seems enough for the entire year,” he added.

Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry George T. Barcelon supported the revised import plan.

“This is a welcome development. The new harvest will be around the fourth quarter. That will be a reference (for determining whether) more imports are needed. Consumption is higher during the holiday season,” he said in a Viber message.

Former Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Jose Ma. A. Concepcion III said in a statement that Mr. Marcos is “correct in his plan” to import a limited amount of sugar and only if the domestic supply has been exhausted.

“The President’s approach will protect both the consumer and the farmer… but a calibrated importation of 100,000 to 150,000 MT, as the President is planning, will allow us to see if price levels start to go down, and doing this at a gradual level will let us adjust as harvest season approaches, then adjust it again as production goes into full swing,” he added. — Luisa Maria Jacinta C. Jocson