IN MY previous column, I presented two contrasting observations, one made by former Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary and now Cabinet Secretary for the Mindanao Development Authority Manny Piñol and the other by present DA Secretary William Dar, regarding the implementation of Republic Act 11203, also known as the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) passed in February 2019.
For Minda CabSec Piñol the RTL is a danger to the food security of the country since it would allow the unimpeded entry of cheap imported rice and would thus imperil the livelihood of rice farmers who depend on reasonable farm gate prices in the sale of their palay produce. On the other hand, DA Secretary Dar is of the opinion that the RTL is the "best reform that ever happened to the Philippine agriculture sector" and further pointed out that that the fall in palay prices was expected that is why a fund was established to help rice farmers become more competitive in rice production.
What exactly is the RTL all about? Well, it is a law that is supposed to modernize the agriculture sector so that it may become globally competitive. One outstanding feature of this law is it would allow the entry of imported rice produced from other countries while imposing a tariff or simply put a tax imposed by the State on an imported good. Now in order to offset the effects of the RTL on the palay production of the country's rice farmers the same law included the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) supposedly in order to improve the rice farmer's competitiveness and income to compensate for the liberalization of the Philippine Rice Trade Policy, which effectively removed quantitative restrictions on rice imports and replaced it with tariffs. In a post on Facebook, DA Secretary Dar pointed out that "rice tariffication" is not a new policy measure since according to him was already "put forward as early as 1986 by a group of economists from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB), when they wrote a compendium of policy papers that comprised the "Agenda for Action for the Philippine Rural Sector" or "Green Book." And "that it was written during the Aquino administration to dismantle the monopolistic enterprises that controlled specific agricultural commodities during the 14-year (1972 to 1986) martial rule of Marcos."
So the RTL was not exactly new but that the said law which came into being only last year is now being implemented to promote the liberalization of the rice sector and allow more players from the private sector to come in.
From this situation, we find Minda CabSec Piñol now sounding the alarm that because of the RTL rice farmers, instead of being motivated to become more competitive, are now suffering under the onus of selling their palay at the farm gate price of only 11 to 14 pesos per kilo instead of the previous price of at least 20 pesos per kilo, and the reason why many of them are now abandoning their rice lands in favor of planting other crops. He further pointed out in his post on Facebook that if the RTL is not reviewed immediately and amended there will be a continuing reduction of rice farm areas.
On the part of DA Secretary Dar, he made mention that there is the RCEF incorporated in the RTL which will augment the support the needs of the rice farmers so that they will not be left out in the global competitiveness program of the country and the liberalization of the Philippine Rice Trade Policy.
But in all of these, it must be understood clearly that as an agricultural nation the Philippines for the longest time has considered rice as the basic staple of almost all households and that the planting of rice is an endemic livelihood for most farmers in the country. This is why if a law is implemented that will greatly impact the local production of rice and severely affect the farmers who plant it then remedial measures should also be implemented immediately to address their concern lest we become wholly dependent on rice imports and abandon the intention of becoming rice self-sufficient as a country.
The question really is, are we that prepared for the RTL, or is this a miss-step that has brought about peril in the country's local rice production and endangered the financial security and livelihood of our ordinary rice farmers? And what about the RCEF? Is the fund a solution to address the problem of the country's rice farmers? And can we truly become self-sufficient in rice? More on this later.