Manila, Philippines — As a farmers’ group called for the abolition of the National Food Authority (NFA) over its supposed preference for rice imports, two senators on Monday challenged the agency to prove its worth by helping farmers and buying their produce at higher prices.
“If the NFA is filling up its buffer stock with imported rice, then [it] has a lot of explaining to do. And if NFA really turns out to be an agency that cannot fulfill its role, then I am open to the idea of abolishing (it),” Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III said.
Sen. Francis Escudero, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, also called on the NFA to belie reports it has become useless and ineffective.
“It is basically a statement that the NFA has become inutile and that the government is simply relying on imports… without investing enough on agriculture, with a view to increasing production and thereby providing food security for our country,” he said.
“I think [the farmers’ group] call for the abolition of the NFA is their way of saying that ‘it’s useless anyway, so why not just abolish it,’” Escudero noted.
But the senator, whose late father, Salvador Escudero III, served as agriculture minister under the administration of then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., also defended the agency from allegations that it has been underperforming.
“With a measly funding of only P8.5 billion, how can it procure enough palay from local farmers at a ‘higher price’ and sell it at a ‘lower price’ to consumers?” he asked.
Instead of studying its abolition, Congress may need to revisit Presidential Decree No. 4, the NFA’s charter, Escudero said, adding, “I believe that what is really needed is to strengthen the power and capacity of the NFA to do its mandate.”
The Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) claimed on Sunday that instead of buying rice from local farmers like them, the NFA was favoring importers like India and Vietnam.
“[It’s] not buying from our farmers anymore. [It’s] negotiating [with Vietnam and India] on rice,” Sinag president Rosendo So said in a statement as he also expressed concern that the agency may already be using its P8.5-billion fund for local rice procurement this year on imports.
So added in a phone interview that they would write to President Marcos, also the Department of Agriculture (DA) secretary, and ask him to abolish the NFA should it fail to fulfill its mandate.
But earlier this month, Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban said in a statement that upon the directive of Marcos, the DA was in talks with Vietnamese rice exporters to beef up the country’s national rice inventory which would last just 52 to 57 days without imports.
He added that the department was also working with India to allow the importation of rice on humanitarian grounds.
“This will hopefully pave the way for the country to get better terms for the additional 300,000 to 500,000 metric tons of rice importation for this year,” Panganiban said.
As of Friday, local rice was priced at P55 to P62 per kilogram, up from P38 to P50 per kilogram, based on the DA’s price monitoring.
Agri groups back agency
If Sinag wanted the NFA abolished, two agricultural groups were opposed to it.
“Definitely, we are against it (abolition) and we know fully well who are pushing for this and why,” Federation of Free Farmers national manager Raul Montemayor said.
“This is the counteroffensive of the pro-liberalization pro-RTL (rice tariffication law) groups reacting to calls for a review of the RTL and the reinstatement of NFA’s regulatory and price stabilization functions in light of the current rice crisis and the legal constraints that RTL has imposed on the government in responding to the crisis,” Montemayor claimed.
For Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc. president Danilo Fausto, the government should increase the agency’s budget and restore its previous directive.
“We do not agree with the abolition of NFA. What we are suggesting is to expand the powers of NFA for our food security,” he said.
Under Republic Act No. 11203 or the Rice Tariffication Act, the NFA is responsible for maintaining the optimal level of rice inventory in the country to be sourced solely from local producers.
In particular, it is tasked to “manage efficiently and effectively the acquisition, quality maintenance, and disposition of the buffer stock during emergencies and calamities.”
Before the enactment of RA 11203 in 2019, the NFA had the sole authority to import rice and regulate its entry. Private traders were allowed to participate, provided they secured import permits.
Spike in palay prices
Malacañang, meanwhile, noted that despite rice retail prices remaining high in many parts of the country, there has been a corresponding spike in palay prices that has benefited farmers.
“For the longest time, Filipino farmers have always been at the losing end of the rice sector. But now, Filipino rice farmers are enjoying better prices from their fresh harvest, perhaps sparked by global fears of a shortage resulting from the adverse impact of El Niño, forcing world suppliers to tighten supply in the world market,” the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) said on Monday, quoting Agriculture Undersecretary for Rice Industry Development Leocadio Sebastian.
The PCO cited data from the DA’s National Rice Program (NRP) showing that palay prices in March rose to P17.69 a kilogram for fresh and P19.73 for dry. In the same month last year, palay prices were P15.99 for fresh and P18.41 for dry palay.
In April this year, the price of fresh palay was P17.66 per kilogram, and for dry palay, it was P20.38, while in April 2022, the prices were P15.57 for fresh and P17.95 for dry.
The highest posted palay price was in Central Luzon at P22 for fresh palay and P25 for dry, according to the DA-NRP.
The DA said its Central Luzon office, which covers Nueva Ecija, the rice granary of the country, reported that palay prices in April this year were at P20.46 for dry and P17.64 for fresh. These prices were higher compared to the same month in 2022, which were at P18.20 for dry and P15.67 for newly harvested grains.
On the other hand, the DA’s Cagayan Valley office, which covers Isabela, another major rice-producing province in Luzon, showed the prices of palay in March 2022 were at P18.48 for dry and P15.10 for fresh. For March this year, palay prices were at P20.47 for dry and P16.52 for fresh palay.
The PCO said that monitoring done by the Philippine Rice Research Institute’s (PhilRice) Philippine Rice Information System (PRiSM) showed that average dry palay prices were at P18.30 a kilogram from January to June last year and P19.5 per kilogram for the same period this year.
For fresh palay, prices from January to June 2022 were at P15.90 a kilogram compared to P17.40 for the same period this year, the PCO quoted Darlynne Kaye Matias, PRiSM field operations chief and senior research specialist of PhilRice-Isabela, as saying.