Gov’t backs down from rice import halt

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THE GOVERNMENT has backed down from suspending rice importation amid the ongoing harvest, saying on Thursday that it will be stricter on issuance of sanitary and phytosanitary import clearances (SPSIC) instead.

Hindi namin pinapa-stop (We did not stop importation). We are implementing the law properly,” Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said in a news conference on Thursday in Quezon City.

He said that was the decision after his meeting on Wednesday evening with President Rodrigo R. Duterte — who had said last Tuesday night that he had ordered the suspension of rice importation during the late September-to-mid-December harvest in order to arrest the steep 17% fall in farmgate prices in the nine months to September — Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea and Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III.

A farmers group had questioned the legality of the order since there is no provision authorizing the president to suspend rice importation under Republic Act No. 11203, which liberalized importation of the staple after it was enacted on Feb. 19.

The same law authorizes the president to adjust tariffs to address market contingencies when Congress is not in session.

Both government and private sector economists have credited this law — and the resulting eight percent drop in rice retail prices — with inflation’s slowdown to within the central bank’s 2-4% target range at 2.6% in the 10 months to October, compared to a near-decade-high 5.2% in full-year 2018.

“What I think the President meant is, number one, you have to look at the interest of the rice farmers, you have to look at the interest of the consumers. Among the interest of the consumers, you want to make sure that the rice is safe and that the prices are reasonable, so they will focus on that,” Mr. Dominguez told reporters on the sidelines of an event on Thursday at the New Clark City Sports Complex in Tarlac.

Mr. Dar said strict food safety requirements had helped reduce the volume of imported rice to 85,000 metric tons (MT) in October from a monthly average of 254,000 MT in the nine months to September.

Mr. Dar noted that, in Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Duterte issued directives to address the issue of fast-falling farmgate prices.

First is being stricter when issuing SPSIC, as provided under Memorandum Order No. 28 that was issued on Nov. 12. This order strengthens the registration procedure for importers of plants, planting materials and plant products and compliance with food safety requirements. It also requires imported rice to arrive before SPSIC expiration. Shipping and arrival dates prescribed in the SPSIC must also be strictly observed.

Mr. Dar added that the department’s Bureau of Plant Industry “will conduct pre-inspection at the point of origin of imported rice…”

Mr. Duterte also ordered the National Food Authority to increase the country’s buffer stock to 30 days from 15 days through more local procurement, while turnover of inventory must also be accelerated by selling an average of 200,000 50-kilogram bags a day.

For 2019 and 2020, P3 billion will also be allotted yearly for cash assistance to the “most affected” farmers, to be sourced from increased duty collections on imported rice.

“Let’s give the law a chance to work. Wala pang isang taon (It hasn’t been even a year). Initially, there will be winners and losers,” Mr. Dar said.

He also assured that there is enough supply of rice by the end of the year. He said palay production is expected to reach 18.49 million MT, about 15% short of the country’s annual requirement. A total of 3.72 million MT of imported rice is expected to arrive by year end. — Vincent M. P. Galang with inputs from Reuters