Retail prices of rice have increased in recent weeks. — PHILIPPINE STAR/EDD GUMBAN

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. on Wednesday ordered the Trade and Agriculture departments to closely monitor retail prices of rice, saying there is sufficient supply.

At the same time, the Department of Agriculture (DA) is recommending that the private sector import an additional 500,000 metric tons (MT) of rice as El Niño-induced dry spells may impact crop production later this year.

In a statement, the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) said Mr. Marcos, who also serves as Agriculture secretary, “will go after hoarders and price manipulators who take advantage of the lean months before the harvest season.”

Citing reports from the DA, the Palace said some retailers are selling rice at P38 to P40 per kilo “while some are selling their cheapest variety at P50 per kilo.”

“Rice supply is sufficient. Prices are, however, very variable,” the Palace said. “The government is working with the private sector to rationalize the prices and make available affordable rice in the market and in Kadiwa stores.”

Leonardo A. Lanzona, who teaches economics at the Ateneo de Manila University, said Mr. Marcos, as DA secretary, should see the whole problem and determine when the government should intervene.

“The first step is to determine where markets fail and to provide the means for the market to correct itself. We cannot have government units closely monitoring each and every market,” he said via Messenger chat. “Apart from the costs of this procedure, this is physically impossible even if the government has all the computers in the world.”

Agriculture Undersecretary Mercedita A. Sombilla said the department is recommending additional rice imports if the El Niño weather pattern affects crop production.

“We are recommending around 500,000 MT to arrive between November and January 2024, so that we would be ensured of sufficient supply during that time,” she said during a House of Representatives Agriculture and Food Committee hearing on Wednesday.

The state weather bureau’s projections have shown a high probability that El Niño will be moderate to strong during the fourth quarter. A strong El Niño, which may cause dry spells and droughts, is expected to hurt the agriculture sector.

The DA’s recommendation for additional imports will be on top of the 300,000 MT of rice that will arrive by end-August, and another 300,000 MT by mid-September.

Ms. Sombilla said retail prices of local and imported rice have increased recently due to higher fertilizer and fuel costs, as well as India’s recent ban on exports of non-basmati white rice.

Reuters reported that global rice prices have jumped by about 20% to 15-year highs since India, which accounts for 40% of world supplies, banned non-basmati white rice exports last month. India’s decision has taken 10 million tons or 20% of the supplies from the international market.

Ms. Sombilla said Vietnam is the Philippines’ main source of rice imports, accounting for 89% of the total.

Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) Chairman Rosendo O. So said the Philippines should lessen its dependence on imports.

“A lot of farmers are already backing out from [planting,]” he told the House committee.

Last year, the Philippines’ rice import volume was almost three times the volume recorded in 2015, Mr. So said.

“While imports are needed this August and early September, it does not make sense for the DA to encourage imports when farmers are harvesting in the fourth quarter,” Raul Q. Montemayor, national manager of the Federation of Free Farmers, said in a Viber chat.

“During harvest time, the price of local palay and rice may go lower than the price of imported rice (especially if the current crisis in the international market persists, or a strong El Niño prevails), so there will be no profit incentive for traders to bring in rice from abroad,” he said.

Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian said the DA is looking into new strategies to boost domestic rice production.

“We would like to move our main rice crop from the wet season to the dry season. That’s why we are working closely now with the NIA (National Irrigation Authority) so that we can maximize our rice production during the dry season,” he told the committee.

Under the proposed 2024 national budget, P30.87 billion will go to the National Rice Program, while P10 billion was earmarked for the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund. Programs for corn and high-value crops will receive P5.28 billion and P1.94 billion, respectively.

The Philippines’ agricultural and fishery production by value contracted by 1.3% in the second quarter, as fish output declined.

Agriculture accounts for about a 10th of the country’s gross domestic product. — Beatriz Marie D. Cruz, Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza with Reuters