Various kinds of rice are displayed at a stall in the Paco Public Market in Manila, June 1, 2023. — PHILIPPINE STAR/EDD GUMBAN

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINE government plans to boost its rice inventory following the onslaught of two typhoons and in preparation for the impact of the El Niño weather pattern on domestic production.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) called on the private sector to import over a million metric tons (MT) of rice amid worries over supply.

A farmers’ group, however, said the target may not be met due to the absence of incentives for local traders, who have to deal with rising international prices and compete with foreign importers who can bid at a higher rate.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mercedita A. Sombilla said the government is now preparing the schedule for the importation of 1.3 million MT of rice.

“We have already something like 1.3 million MT volume of applications that are already pending there. So, what we are going to be doing is to really encourage the private sector to get this,” she said at a Palace briefing after a Cabinet meeting with President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.

Mr. Marcos, who heads the Agriculture department, will hold discussions with the private sector on the issue of rice supply, Ms. Sombilla said.

“I think we really need the help of the private sector in situations like these,” she said.

Ms. Sombilla said the rice imports will be scheduled properly to protect local farmers.

The Philippines has been battered by Super Typhoon Egay (international name: Doksuri) and a southwest monsoon that dumped heavy rainfall for almost a week now. This was followed by Typhoon Falcon (international name: Khanun) which brought strong rains to parts of Luzon, including Metro Manila.

The damage to agriculture caused by Egay and the monsoon reached P1.94 billion, with the rice sector accounting for P950 million of the total, Agriculture Assistant Secretary Arnel V. De Mesa told the same briefing.

In a video statement after the Cabinet meeting, Mr. Marcos said the DA had assured him there is enough supply of rice and corn seeds that will be distributed to farmers affected by the typhoon.

The DA is set to distribute 111,873 bags of rice seeds, 14,426 bags of corn seeds, and 2,582 kilograms of assorted vegetable seeds to regions affected by Egay.

“With rice supply projected to reach 5.47 million MT in the third quarter of 2023 and demand expected to reach 3.79 million MT, ending stock in the third quarter is projected at 1.69 million MT, enough to last 45 days at present consumption,” the Presidential Palace said in a statement, citing the DA.

At the Palace briefing, Ms. Sombilla said the country has rice stocks good for only 39 days following the typhoon.

She said the government expects the biggest rice production to start by the end of September or sometime in October. “So, we will be beefing up our supply and, of course, the usual supplies that we will be getting from imports.”

But Raul Q. Montemayor, national director of the Federation of Free Farmers, said the country needs stocks good for 60 days until the harvest season begins in October, noting that the import requirement should be between 650,000 and one million MT.

“The fact that the Bureau of Plant Industry has issued quarantine import certificates for 1.3 million tons is meaningless if the importers feel it is too risky to import rice now that international prices are going up,” Mr. Montemayor said in a Viber message.

He said some rice suppliers have also reneged on their contracts to supply local importers, “opting to sell their inventories to higher bidders.”

Mr. Marcos earlier said the Philippine government was looking into the possibility of entering into a supply deal with India under a government-to-government arrangement after New Delhi imposed an export ban on non-basmati white rice.

The India export ban will only have minimal impact on the Philippines because the affected variant only accounts for 25% of India’s total rice exports, Ms. Sombilla said.

Vietnam is Manila’s largest source of rice, accounting for 80% of its rice imports in 2022.

“It would be easier for the Philippines to buy rice from Vietnam than India because Hanoi has not imposed any limits on its exports,” Mr. Montemayor said, noting that India accounted for only 0.6% of Philippine rice imports in the same year.

“We can buy rice from any exporting country as long as we are willing to pay the price.”

The country will likely rely on “traditional” rice sellers such as Vietnam, Thailand, and India, Ms. Sombilla said.

Aside from the Indian export ban, the government is also looking at the possible impact of Russia’s termination of the Black Sea Grain initiative, which drove up global prices of wheat, Ms. Sombilla said.

“The Rice Tariffication Law indeed allows the private sector to import rice. But what is alarming is that the government has to encourage the private sector to do so, and not simply allow the market to make its own decision,” Leonardo A. Lanzona, who teaches economics at the Ateneo de Manila University, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The government should be more concerned about domestic production and how to provide farmers with resources to address the impact of the recent typhoons and El Niño, he said.

“The government already has a lot of problems on its own,” Mr. Lanzona said. “It has no business telling the private sector to import unless it is the official policy now to just import rice in the face of these challenges.”

The Philippines is one of the countries most affected by water-related disasters, with an average of 20 typhoons that bring heavy flooding and cause billions of pesos in damage to infrastructure and agriculture every year.

The state weather bureau is expecting a “moderate to strong” El Niño event in late 2023 or early 2024.

Mr. Montemayor of the farmers’ group lamented the Marcos administration’s failure to lessen the country’s reliance on rice imports. He said farmers’ output has not increased significantly “because the low palay prices discouraged farmers from expanding their production.”

“As a result, our dependence on imports has increased over time, and now we are paying the price for the way we have treated our farmers,” he said. “And the situation could get worse in the face of El Niño and climate change… Farmers will not produce if they keep on losing money.”