Sugar industry stakeholders seek changes to improve competitiveness

MANILA, Philippines – With the support of the Senate, sugar industry stakeholders will be sending a number of recommendations to economic managers following the proposal to liberalize sugar imports

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol told reporters on Tuesday, February 12, that the stakeholders reiterated their stance against the deregulation of sugar imports, as it would hurt sugarcane farmers, 80% of which are land reform beneficiaries.

"The stakeholders said that if sugar importation is deregulated or liberalized, the first casualty would be the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program beneficiaries," Piñol said in a mix of Filipino and English.

"They said it would have a huge impact on them and they even reminded us of the collapse of the sugar industry when the number of insurgents increased in Negros."

Confederation of Sugar Producers spokesperson Raymond Montinola affirmed in a statement on Tuesday that 78,276 sugar producers are small farmers and agrarian reform beneficiaries who only plant on 5 hectares of land or less.

"[I]mport liberalization will be the deathblow for the industry as importers and industrial users can now bring in heavily subsidized sugar," Montinola said. 

"In effect, we will be helping farmers of other, wealther countries, rather than Filipinos."

While the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) arranged for a meeting to come up with recommendations, Piñol reiterated that they cannot make a stand regarding the issues.

"The DA will always be neutral as far as the issues are concerned. We cannot take a [stand on a] specific issue because we are part of the administration," he added.

"Our part here is to listen to them and relay whatever the President or the economic managers would like to listen to." (READ: Improve agriculture sector to keep inflation low – economic experts)

Improving the industry's competitiveness

In terms of extending support to the sugarcane producers, the stakeholders also asked that the allocation of the Sugar Industry Development Act (SIDA) fund be reviewed and amended.

"They couldn't use the SIDA funds. From P2 billion, it only became P500 million. The utilization is slow so we came up with measures [to solve this]," Piñol said in a mix of Filipino and English.

"[T]hey find it hard to comply with Landbank's requirements. So they feel that the fund is there, but they can't access it."

Given that the stakeholders find the requirements of the Land Bank of the Philippines too hard to comply with, Piñol said they asked that the Philippine Sugar Corporation be revived as it was "more responsive to their needs."

Instead of having the government procure needed equipment and farm inputs through bidding, the SRA will be in charge of turning over funds to farmers' groups to purchase what they need starting this year.

For instance, Piñol mentioned that Cagayan Valley sugarcane farmers have been bidding to procure fertilizers since 2016.

Changing how the SIDA fund will be handled should improve the productivity of sugarcane farmers and make the industry more competitive, as it would cut through the bidding process for equipment and other needed tools.

Aside from this, the stakeholders are asking that they be given access to high yield varieties to increase their yield.

"They're also asking that the solar irrigation project be extended to the sugar industry. Because they said that if the sugar plantation is irrigated, the production doubles," Piñol added.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday morning, Piñol wrote that President Rodrigo Duterte approved talks between the DA and Israeli agro-industrial firm LR Group to set up solar-powered irrigation systems in the Philippines.

The LR Group is offering to build around 6,200 units worth P44 billion. This will cover around 500,000 hectares of land in the next 3 years, Piñol added.

Meanwhile, Piñol said the SRA's suggestion to impose suggested retail prices on sugar has not yet been discussed. But the agriculture chief said he will be meeting with Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez within the week to talk about this proposal. –Rappler.com