A farmer applies fertilizer to a rice field in Barangay Sumapang Matanda, Malolos, Bulacan on September 14, 2023.
MANILA, Philippines — Farmers’ groups are confident that President Marcos will junk the proposed tariff cut on imported rice, but the head of the government’s economic team maintained that slashing rice import tariffs would benefit the greatest number of Filipinos.
“We are confident that the President will not allow the tariff cut, just like the implementation of the (rice) price cut where he did not listen to the economic team. It is possible that the Department of Finance will recommend the tariff reduction, but the President will reject it,” Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura chairman Rosendo So said yesterday.
He was referring to the instance when Marcos did not consult the economic team led by Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan before implementing the price caps on rice.
Diokno earlier said there is a need to temporarily cut tariffs on imported rice to 10 percent from the current 35 percent.
“What is important is that we can prove to the President that we can produce (palay) locally. The President has an independent mind as head of the Department of Agriculture (DA),” So said.
So added that during the hearing of the Tariff Commission, the Foundation for Economic Freedom did not present concrete evidence to justify the petition on tariff reduction.
According to So, the tariff reduction on imported rice is not an assurance that the retail prices of the staple food will go down.
He added that the price ceiling on rice could be lifted by the end of September as the harvest season has already started.
He also opposed the possible appointment of Balisacan as secretary of the DA, saying: “It is unacceptable. He (Balisacan) has no knowledge in agriculture. He will just copy data. He is not fit.”
Tariff cut pushed
However, Diokno is adamant that there is a need to temporarily cut tariffs – from the current 35 percent to zero percent or just up to 10 percent – to reduce prices for consumers and mitigate a potential shortage of the staple due to the impact of El Niño.
In a Viber message to reporters, Diokno argued that the executive department is currently discussing at the highest level the proposal to reduce import tariffs on rice.
“As discussions are underway, the DOF maintains its full support for an appropriate policy response that promotes the greater good for the greatest number of Filipinos,” Diokno said.
He also emphasized that they are coordinating with other relevant government agencies and stakeholders in coming up with a decision.
“The DOF will pursue programs and support measures to balance the interests of domestic rice farmers while keeping rice affordable for consumers – especially the poorest households,” said Diokno, head of the Marcos administration’s economic team.
Earlier, Diokno noted that a draft executive order is mulled to be submitted to President Marcos for signing, upon the recommendation of the economic team.
Marcos can only issue an EO once Congress takes a break starting on Sept. 30.
Agriculture groups have called on top government officials to be removed for their proposals favoring the importation of rice.
Around 30 members of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas led by its chairman emeritus Rafael Mariano and So held a lightning rally in front of the DOF office along Roxas Boulevard service road in Malate, Manila yesterday, according to the Manila Police District.
They carried placards that expressed their demands for the government to stop importing rice, strengthen local rice production and even the removal of Diokno, police reported.
In his statement, Mariano also called for Balisacan to be ousted. Diokno and Balisacan proposed that the 35-percent import tariff on rice be reduced to 10-percent, even zero, which could be “disastrous” to local rice farmers and consumers, he said.
For its part, progressive group Bayan urged people to protest the worsening cost-of-living crisis as oil prices rise for the 11th straight week and the unavailability of affordable rice.
“The price increases are aggravated by the clear budget mismanagement of the Marcos regime as it wastes public funds on foreign travels and confidential funds,” it said.
Bayan added that instead of addressing the concerns of Filipino motorists, the President has been more focused on attending F1 racing events in Singapore over the weekend.
On the issue of affordable rice, Bayan criticizes the government’s price cap as a “mere populist tactic that did not address the fundamental supply issues surrounding affordable rice, such as cartelization and hoarding.” — Ghio Ong, Mark Ernest Villeza