AMONG the pithy sound bytes in P.Noy's State of the Nation Address (SONA), his revelation that the country has been "over-importing" rice and that some even ended up rotting inside the warehouses, was the one that quickly caught the public's indignation.
This was last week's hot topic on So To Speak, where government officials and civil society representatives gave their ten cents on what has happened to our rice supply.
Such wastage is alarming with almost four million families experiencing hunger at least once between April to June according to a survey released by the Social Weather Station (SWS) last July.
Adding fuel to the public's ire was NFA Administrator Angelito Banayo's statement that their warehouses were literally "swimming in rice." But former Agriculture Secretary Arturo Yap belied this, saying the opposite and questioned the veracity of the facts passed on to President Aquino.
It's commendable the new NFA administration is pursuing this through an auditing committee, at the same time promising the public to distribute the excess grains via various programs like the DSWD's food for work, daycare centers and similar initiatives by October. He knows that the public is watching his every move in this one.
Regardless, something happened to turn the country from a premier rice-producer to the world's number one rice importer that is reduced to sourcing rice from Vietnam, Thailand and even as far as China and India.
Whatever happened to the NFA's mandate of "helping the poorest of the poor, maintain stable supply and buffer stock and maintain stability of prices?" Most likely this has been turned inside out by our international commitments to the World Trade Organization which calls for reduction of subsidies to agriculture and open door policy to foreign agricultural products, like it or not.
In an ideal world, if we were to produce the 2.4 million metric tons locally, some four million farmers and agricultural workers would benefit.
But in reality, the NFA can only buy a small percent of the total rice produced, driving many local producers to sell their grain to private rice traders for a pittance. Consider, the price of palay can go as low as P4.50 per kilo, almost the price of hog feed pegged at P5.00 per kilo!
And when the government does decide to import, the process is laden with anomalies that some unscrupulous traders take advantage of. Former Agriculture Secretary Leonardo Montemayor estimates the government lost 1.6 billion to two billion pesos in potential revenues after the NFA authorized duty-free importation of 200 thousand metric tons by the private sector.
These anomalies must be unearthed and those liable should be punished!
If we want rice self-sufficiency in three years, then it must go beyond merely expanding the areas to be planted with certified seeds or high-yield varieties. Most poor farmers reject these, as they are too capital-intensive.
Rather, our rice producers need more -- not less -- support from government such as increasing the procurement allotment of NFA, ensuring that there is sufficient land to plant our staple grains such as rice and corn as well as providing other subsidies to ensure that they can be able to produce the rice we need. This is the only way we wean away our country from being the world's number one rice importer and return to being a premier rice-producing nation.