Taming rice prices: What lawmakers, experts say

MANILA, Philippines – Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol expects rice prices to "stabilize" by November this year or during harvest season.

However, he said we "shouldn't dream" for prices to drop all the way down to P35 a kilo, since the cost of living has also gone up. (READ: High rice prices a win for farmers – Piñol)

Some have become wary of believing the statements of the agriculture chief, since he too was the one who said rice prices would fall in May once imports from Vietnam and Thailand arrive. Data disputed his and the National Food Authority's (NFA) assurance.

The numbers in the Zambasulta area, in Piñol's words, are "peculiar." Prices are so varied that looking at the average hides the true state of the area.

There have been reports of rice reaching up to P70 a kilo in some areas. However, prices in Sulu have been very low.

To prevent prices from soaring further especially in severely-hit areas, several lawmakers and officials have recommended measures.

Senator Cynthia Villar: I think we should impose price control because rice is a political crop. Everyone eats rice. It's very important to Filipinos. It might be better if we declare a state of calamity on rice and impose price control.

Makabayan bloc: Impose rice price control in Zamboanga and other areas to immediately arrest rice cartel manipulation.

NFA Spokesperson Rex Estoperez: Imposing a price ceiling might not be good since it may lead traders to limit supply.

University of the Philippines Diliman PhD candidate JC Punongbayan: Imposing a price ceiling on rice in a time of rice supply constraints is a politically attractive but patently unsound idea. By preventing rice supply from meeting rice demand, it is a surefire way to exacerbate rice shortages nationwide and worsen the plight of our people, especially the poor. It also betrays the proponents' disturbing lack of understanding of basic economic principles. 

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque: It needs a declaration of calamity. [President Rodrigo Duterte] can't do that unilaterally.

Villar: I guess they failed in their mandate. NFA will have no role under liberalized rice importation. (Villar is also pushing for rice tariffication.)

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian: The NFA has become a liability to the government. One of the problems I see leading to the lack of supply and high prices is the NFA operations. The agency is not working properly and it is failing to fulfill its responsibility.

Makabayan bloc: Instead of abolishing the NFA, its budget for local palay procurement must be raised substantially for the NFA to immediately increase its buying price from the current P17 per kilogram to at least P20 per kg. The P7-billion subsidy for 2018 could procure 350,000 metric tons at P20 per kg of palay, that would produce more than 4.5 million bags of milled rice. Make locally-procured NFA rice available to poor consumers at an affordable price in retail outlets throughout the country.

Makabayan bloc: Improve rice self-sufficiency from 95% to 100%, and break out from neoliberal subservience – as dictated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) – agreement on agriculture, defend the Philippine rice sector from massive importation as being further pushed by the rice imports tariffication bill, and uphold genuine agrarian reform and rural development in the country.

Piñol: [The Makabayan bloc's] proposal is good, but we need to balance it. There is an obligation to the WTO. I think we did not lack in our recommendations. We have submitted a rice road map which shows that we have given farmers high yielding quality seeds, sufficient irrigation facilities, fertilization, mechanization, and easy access financing.

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.

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