Zubiri to Piñol: politics has no place in sugar industry

SENATOR Juan Miguel Zubiri has urged Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Emmanuel Piñol to stop “politicizing” the problem that has beset the local sugar industry now threatened by multi-national beverage makers’ preference of using the imported high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the manufacture of cola drinks.

Zubiri has reacted to reports quoting Piñol who accused sugarcane plantation owners in Negros Occidental of being supporters of the Liberal Party and even claimed that the province is a “Mar Roxas country” in reference to the former senator and LP official who ran against President Rodrigo Duterte in the last presidential election.

“No, he (Piñol) should not politicize it. This issue is not political, this issue is the survival of over 1 million farmers, and if you add their families, that’s 5 million people directly or indirectly affected by this industry,” the Senator told reporters in an interview at a hotel here over the weekend.

Zubiri was referring to the cola firms’ importation of HFCS in bulk as sweetener for their soft drink products thus affecting the local sugar industry.

He said Negros Occidental is not the only province that’s producing sugar since sugarcane plantations and sugar milling companies are spread throughout the Philippines including Piñol’s home province of North Cotabato.

Bukidnon, where Zubiri comes from, has hundreds of hectares of sugar plantations and two sugar processing facilities, the Bukidnon Sugar Milling Corporation and Crystal Sugar Company Inc.

He said the local sugarcane farmers suffered from the HFCS importation which had dramatically lowered the price of sugar in the country. About 40 percent of sugar produced locally goes to beverage manufacturing.

Per reports, a 50-kilo bag of locally produced sugar used to be sold at P1,700 in the market, but can now be bought at P1,300.

Zubiri said this lowering of the price of local sugar is hurting this sector which has a slim profit margin, as the cost of producing a 50-kilo bag of sugar ranges from P1,000 to P1,100.

Because of this, stakeholders in the sugar production sector had met with the President last month and appealed for his intervention.

Zubiri said Duterte instructed the Sugar Regulatory Administration to protect the local sugarcane farmers prompting SRA Administrator Anna Rosario Paner to issue Sugar Order No. 3 which regulates the importation of HFCS to the country.

Soft drink companies have protested the sugar order. Coca Cola Femsa Philippines even petitioned in court a temporary restraining order against said order early this month.

Zubiri has questioned Piñol’s reaction to the issuance Sugar Order No. 3 which he said is not favoring the sugarcane farmers.

“It boggles my mind why is it [Piñol] has to order one of the attached agencies (SRA) to stand down. For me, I was hoping the DA through its Secretary, will protect the farmers,” he said, adding Piñol’s mandate is the look after the interest of the Filipino farmers.

To shed light on the matter, Zubiri said the Senate’s agriculture committee, headed by Senator Cynthia Villar, will invite all the sugarcane industry stakeholders to a hearing on April 10.

Expected to attend are Piñol and Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano.

He said they will ask Piñol to explain why he is very supportive of the cola companies’ move to import HFCS.

“It’s going to be an exciting hearing and I do wish the secretaries would come because if they don’t show and send their undersecretaries, I will have to move and have a show-cause order [and set another hearing],” he added.
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