Tuesday, 8 April 2008

GMA lifts quota on rice, corn

Move allows firms to import grains; govt keeps tariffs
By Angelo S. Samonte Reporter
The Manila Times

President Gloria Arroyo lifted the import quota on rice and corn but has not adjusted tariff rates in a bid to entice the private sector to participate in beefing up the country’s grain supply.

“The lifting of the import quota will allow private importers to import rice and corn without limit as long as they won’t hoard grains,” Presidential Management Staff chief Cerge Remonde said. “Previously, we had a quota, but now the President has removed it. So anybody can import rice and corn.”

Because of increases in global rice prices, the Philippines last month paid more than double the usual amount for foreign rice through state importations.

The government has bought about 1.2 million tons of rice, or 68 percent of this year’s import quota, from Vietnam, Thailand and Pakistan.

Starting March up to April, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said they are expecting an additional 721,100 metric tons of rice to arrive from contracted imports.

Philippine rice imports may increase to 2.1 million tons this year, from 1.9 million tons in 2007, as rising wheat prices make bread and pasta less affordable to poor Filipinos, boosting demand for cheaper food products, Yap added.

The private sector is allowed to import a maximum 300,000 metric tons of rice annually, but high world prices and the tariff has meant that in the past two years less than 10 percent of that volume has been bought by private traders.

Some skeptical

Meanwhile, the Rice Watch and Action Network (R1), a coalition of farmers and nongovernment organizations, said the lifting of the import tariff on rice and corn will not have much impact on the current retail prices, especially rice.

The group said since the government has not adjusted the taxes on rice imports, private importers will remain reluctant to import given the high prices of grains in the global market.

The lifting of the quota, it added, is also superfluous because the government has been importing beyond the 200,000 yearly import quota.

“If the government really wants to stabilize rice prices, the NFA [National Food Authority] should heavily subsidize importations if it could afford to pay more. But it will [pay more] at the expense of taxpayers and the NFA would be selling rice at a loss,” the group said.

It raised the alarm on rice importation by the private sector, arguing that liberalizing the policy on rice importation will lead to more abuse of it.

Instead of allowing the private sector to bring in more rice, the group said the government should support genuine farmers’ groups to import so they could recoup their losses from shortfalls in their productions.

No food crisis

Amid talks on a looming food crisis, Remonde assured consumers that there is no food crisis now. “There’s no problem for the Philippines because we have enough rice stocks although [food crisis] is a global concern,” he said.

He also appealed to all sectors especially the opposition to cooperate with the government on the food issue instead of taking advantage of the situation to enrage the people.

“All issues relating to food supply are being considered by the President. Suggestions to the NFA are welcome. The government has been monitoring the prices of rice and other basic commodities,” Remonde said.

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