Editorial: Waging war with“camote”

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

THE DEPARTMENT of Agriculture (DA) is campaigning to convince the public to eat more sweet potato or “camote,” cassava and corn.

It is doing so for the wrong reasons.

According to Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 18 report by Elias O. Baquero, the DA wants the public to take these foods as alternatives to rice.

DA 7 Technical Director Marina Hermoso told reporters that traders and retailers have increased rice prices despite the declaration putting Visayas under a state of calamity.

Weed out exploiters

Long before the Christmas season, when prices of goods traditionally go up, consumers have been crying out against the escalating prices of rice, as well as of other food and basic commodities.

The country was hit by two calamities: the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that devastated Bohol and Cebu on Oct. 15, and typhoon Yolanda that ravaged Leyte, Samar and other parts of Visayas on Nov. 8.

In November, President Benigno Aquino III declared a state of national calamity, enforcing a price freeze for basic goods across the country.

According to Section 6 of Republic Act 7581, or the Price Act, prices of basic necessities are frozen in an area proclaimed a disaster area or placed under a state of calamity. The price freeze keeps the prevailing prices or enforces automatic price control. A list of the retail prices is published in national and local media.

The Price Act penalizes profiteering and hoarding with imprisonment from five to 15 years, and fines ranging from P5,000 to P2 million.

Aside from DA, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), National Food Authority (NFA), Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Health (DOH) are supposed to be conducting regular price monitoring and enforcement in disaster-hit areas. This task force is complemented by local government units and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

How effective is the multi-agency task force in enforcing the Price Act?

If DA is falling back on a root crop-centered strategy to cope with runaway rice prices, the government should seriously review its act.

Beyond stopgap measures

“The Ganador brand of rice, which used to be sold at P44 per kilo, was sold at P48 per kilo after the earthquake and P53 per kilo after Yolanda,” reported Sun.Star Cebu.

According to a Nov. 22 InterAksyon.com report, after the NFA had to distribute its rice stocks as relief goods for calamity victims, commercial retailers immediately took advantage to increase their profit margins for rice.

This failure of government to enforce the price freeze cannot be plugged with stopgap measures like promoting “camote,” cassava and corn to convince Filipinos to alter their habit of eating rice as a staple.

According to Hermoso, eating root crops and vegetables will lower the demand for rice, forcing traders to also lower their prices.

Food historians may argue that it is not that easy or quick to shift deeply ingrained eating habits, specifically Filipinos’ dependence on rice as a staple in their diet.

Housewives who frequent the wet market can even contest Hermoso’s dietary alternatives since at present, vegetable prices have also gone up. Root crop supplies are not in regular and high quantities, even in wet markets.

Government, through its multi-agency monitoring teams, must enforce the price freeze of basic commodities. Violators must face administrative sanctions for selling necessities beyond the dictated retail prices.

Last Oct. 31, Sun.Star Cebu’s Mia A. Aznar reported that the DTI is investigating 30 retailers in Cebu and Bohol found violating the price freeze of basic commodities.

While these establishments and other violators face due process to determine their accountability in light of the Price Act, it is much more crucial for the public that the government monitors the market and enforces the prevailing prices for basic necessities.

For all its nutritious value, “camote” will not make profiteers stop their exploitation of the public.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on December 23, 2013.


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