Rough Cuts: The puzzle that is the rice crisis

The present rate of inflation in the country is creating issues that have generated a lot of heated debates these days that the media are feasting with gusto.

And the issues emanate from one of the most critical triggers to the inflation — sharp spike in the price of the Filipinos’ staple food — rice.
The debates are on whether or not there really is rice shortage obtaining in the country. Another is whether there is or no fair basis in continuously increasing the price of the said commodity, and who is making the biggest cut in the exorbitant hike.
On the former debate subject, the government seems ambivalent in its position. Leading the non-believers in the rice production shortage are President Rodrigo Duterte himself and Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Emmanuel Pinol. The two are saying during the many interviews they gave the media that there is no rice shortage; that if the rice staple appears to be wanting in the market and other retailers’ stalls it is only artificial and that the possibility is that huge volume of rice are being hoarded in bodegas of big-time rice traders and wholesalers. The President himself was emphatic in saying that he would order the police to force open warehouses suspected of concealing the hoarded cereal.
For his part, Secretary Pinol has been insisting that there is no shortage in rice production. However, in one news report he was quoted making recommendation that the administration allows rice smuggling in certain areas so that the deficiency in rice supply there can be addressed. And he even ordered shipping of huge volume of the imported rice by the NFA to the Zamboanga region where shortage was acute and the price of available commercial rice reached as much as P70 a kilo. The NFA, probably under the DA’s secretary’s prodding being the current head of the NFA Council, even diverted a supply shipment for Cagayan de Oro City to Zamboanga. Of late, some lawmakers are proposing for a P10 billion supplemental budget for the purpose of buying palay from the local market at a higher price of P22 per kilo compared to the price it is currently buying which is at P17 per kilo. The same additional budget being sought, is also to be used for the importation of rice to back up local stocks.
From this ambivalence it can easily be deduced that officials of government agencies tasked with the monitoring of rice production in the country may have been deliberately feeding the President with erroneous data. They might have thought that the chief executive of the country is so busy with his campaign against illegal drugs that he does not anymore have the time to validate the information on the country’s rice production given him by some of his alter egos.
We also believe that other government agencies tasked to manage utilization of the country’s natural resources like lands, lakes and others are not also giving the President accurate reports as to the status of these God-given wealth.
For example, the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB), the Department of Agrarian Reform, (DAR), and the DA may not have been apprising Malacanang of the actual number of hectares from the country’s agricultural land that have been converted into residential, commercial and industrial purposes and now the sites of massive development. For all we know the bulk of the once agricultural areas were all rice lands producing millions of cavans of palay.
The land owner-farmers may have sold out their possession to big-time residential housing or commercial/industrial estate developers, or made their former rice farms into equity in joint venture agreements.
Thus, even if we just assume a figure of 30 percent of the once massive rice farms are converted into uses other than agriculture, how many hundred thousands, perhaps million cavans of rice are taken out from the total annual harvest? And given the country’s high annual population growth rate how many more mouths need to be fed yearly even as rice production keeps on declining? That is simple mathematical equation. Then add the country’s unusually prolonged undesirable weather condition and the country’s rice production is certainly a total failure.
And the debate as to whether there is or there is no shortage of rice in the country still rages! Where have all these no rice production shortage believers been all these years? In the comfort of their cozy offices or travelling outside the country in the guise of searching better ideas to aid in rice production?
Meanwhile, heated discussions on what’s causing all these sharp increases in the prices of rice in the market also continue parallel with the debate on whether there is or no rice production shortage.
Until this very time officials from the government agencies already mentioned, with the addition of the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), are still fielding their expert sleuths to identify the sectors in the grains industry that are making the most money from the sharp spike of prices of rice and other agricultural products..
Since it is common knowledge that the farm gate prices are getting lower by the day even as consumers need to jump just to reach the present rice price levels, then it is clear the big money in this rice crisis scenario are not accruing to the impoverished farmers.
Now, if you’d ask us, we believe that the big money induced by the supposed rice crisis goes to the big-time traders, many of whom are also the owners or stockholders of rice mills. These traders shrewdly put the farmers under their bondage by advancing the money needed to procure farm inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, offer of free transport of their products, and even labor cost. In that proposition, the farmer’s responsibility is to sell all their produce to the big-time agri-product traders.
Unfortunately, the government is not doing all these. If it is, the corrupt in the agencies charged with uplifting the farmers’ lives make themselves become first in the line of beneficiaries in terms of kickbacks, over price and business opportunities.
Remember the close to a billion peso fertilizer scam during the Arroyo administration? Liquid fertilizers were overpriced many times over the actual cost. Pseudo dealers cropped up winning almost every fertilizer deal. And worst, many farmers did not receive even a single drop of the liquid fertilizer but found their names listed as beneficiaries.
Of course many of those in government then who were in cahoots with private individuals in taking the farmers in a tumultuous and deceptive ride, are now facing graft and corruption charges. But ironically, they are still very much around with others being able to serve government again. Thanks to our complex judicial system.
So, again, who are profiting the most from this supposed ongoing rice crisis? The government expert sleuths could be facing the wrong direction in their search. That is why they haven’t found the real culprits yet.

Posted in Opinion