Economist bares rice supply warning signs

AN economist House leader on Thursday called on the Departments of Agriculture (DA) and Trade and Industry (DTI) to “anticipate challenges in rice supply” as he pointed out “warning signs” that there will be issues on the price and the accessibility of rice in the coming weeks due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Historically, we’ve had challenges with rice price and supply in economic and social crises, but those challenges were rarely about having enough rice for everyone in the aggregate. Kumbaga, laging sapat para sa lahat – pero laging may sobra at laging may nagkukulang.

The issues have always been about getting the national supply of rice into the communities that need the supply. Those challenges are made starker by delays in ECQ checkpoints,” said House committee on ways and means chairman and House stimulus cluster co-chair Joey Sarte Salceda of Albay.

“The aggregate does not equate to local experience. So, our monitoring will have to span the whole chain, from farm to point of retail sale,” said Salceda, who proposed several pro-poor measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 like the social amelioration for the low-income families and wage subsidy for middle class workers.

“Ensuring the adequate supply of rice and other prime commodities is essential to the effective enforcement of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) and other non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI). The surer the supply, the less likely people will violate stay-at-home and quarantine rules. If they’re not sure they can buy rice at fair prices, our people will break the rules,” Salceda warned.

Salceda cited global market data that rice prices in the world market went up by as much as 12 percent week on week on the first week of April.

He also said that “As of 01 March 2020, the total rice stocks inventory stood at 2,178.64 thousand metric tons, 1.9 percent lower year-on-year, and 8.3 percent lower month-on-month.”

“Harvest season doesn’t come until May. So, we have to be prepared,” said Salceda.

Salceda also warned that issues continue to persist in checkpoints.

“Just recently, the National Food Authority (NFA) reported that some drivers of 14 trucks carrying 14,000 sacks of rice from Regions 1, 2 and 3 were failed to meet at their Malolos warehouse to deliver the rice to warehouses in Valenzuela and Cavite. Only 8 trucks were able to reach the Malolos warehouse, while six trucks were allegedly stopped at quarantine checkpoints. Government to government na ‘yan, ah,” he lamented.

To ensure adequate supply in all areas, Salceda recommended the following measures

• The Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) must monitor the strict implementation of their respective agencies’ issuances that the flow of rice and other essential commodities – as well as the necessary inputs to produce and process these commodities, such as fertilizers and pesticides – should remain unhampered.

• To burst artificially inflated prices in local areas, the DA and the DTI may open mobile stores and other similar schemes that sell rice and other commodities at fair prices.

• Facilitate matching of rice producers and markets to keep middleman costs at a minimum.

• Develop an online, citizen-based monitoring of the prevailing of rice and other prime commodities.

Wherever there are localities with anomalously higher prices compared to baseline or expected prices, the DTI and the DA must use appropriate interventions such as stricter monitoring and enforcement of retail price measures.

The system will also allow consumers to compare prices in nearby areas, making local cartel practices easier to spot and prevent.

• Secure commitments for adequate supply from supplier countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, while also sustaining support for local production through programs such as the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) and the National Rice Program.

• Relax rules and regulations on rice importation. Consolidate small import orders through the Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC).

• Ensure that the labor force across the rice supply chain (from farmers, to millworkers, to drivers of transport) are able to work and are conferred the privileges granted to those who work in essential services.

“In some checkpoints, may mga nalilito pa. Some checkpoints still delay inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. We can’t produce rice without those inputs. I’m asking the DA and the DTI to make sure that we unchain the whole supply chain. That’s why a week before the DA and the DTI issued agency orders, I requested that we ensure that the checkpoints are rational and nationally supervised,” said Salceda.

As early as the first week of ECQ, Salceda requested the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IED) to rationalize checkpoints and ensure the unhampered flow of goods and inputs to essential goods.