Econ team mulls less tarrifs: Move aims to cushion impact of rising prices

By Jocelyn Montemayor – Malaya

The Cabinet economic cluster is looking at possible amendments to the Fisheries Code and the tariffication policies on imported fish, meat, sugar and vegetables to cushion the impact of the rising prices of food and agricultural products and arrest inflation.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said a draft executive order on government efforts to address inflation will be submitted by the economic managers soon.

The proposed issuance will include, among others, the removal of “administrative constraints and non-tariff barriers” in the importation of rice, meat, sugar and vegetables.

Roque said prior to the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday night, the economic cluster briefed President Duterte on the 6.4 percent August inflation rate which stemmed from the high rentals for housing and high prices of rice, electricity, gas and other fuels, fish and seafood, among others.

The economic cluster also discussed with Duterte the government efforts to tame the spiking prices, and presented list of recommendations to the Cabinet after briefing the President.

Roque said the economic cluster’s report includes assuring the public there is sufficient rice supply in the country, with 4.6 million sacks of rice currently available in the National Food Authority (NFA) warehouses and which will be distributed immediately.

Government is expecting the arrival later this month of some 2 million sacks of rice in addition to the approved importation of 5 million sacks more in the next one and a half months, and another 5 million sacks to be imported early next year.

Before the year ends, 12.6 million metric tons or 252 million sacks of rice are also expected to be harvested.

Of the current rice stocks and expected arrivals, a total of 2.7 million sacks will be allocated to ZAMBASULTA – Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – area where a crisis in rice supply was reported.

Roque said apart from ensuring the supply of rice, the government is simplifying and streamlining the licensing procedures for rice imports of the NFA, and will form monitoring teams for surveillance of rice from ports to NFA warehouses and outlets.

The executive branch is also urging the Senate to immediately pass the Rice Tariffication Bill within the month, he added.

He said the economic cluster also recommended the distribution of imported fish in Metro Manila, and setting up of markets and provision of cold storage facility for poultry owners to allow the public to directly buy from chicken farmers.

On sugar, Roque said the government wants to simplify importation procedures to allow consumers to have direct access to the suppliers. It is also looking at improving the logistics and transportation, distribution and storage of the vegetable supplies.

According to Roque, some of these measures are actually being implemented or have begun but would still be included in the list of measures to institutionalize them.

Ruth Castelo, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) undersecretary, assured the public there would be no increase in prices of some basic and prime goods like canned sardines, canned meats, all kinds of milk, coffee, bottled water, instant noodles, bread, salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, bottled water and candles in the next three months.

Castelo said the different manufacturers gave their assurances following appeals made by government.

She added the government is currently not considering any price ceilings, instead it is trying other options like flooding the market with enough supply.

In the case of rice, for instance, at least 5 million bags of rice imports will be arriving around October in addition to the harvest that is expected later this month, she pointed out.

Castelo said the DTI together with the Department of Agriculture is setting up more consumer outlets where the public can directly buy products from the producers at much affordable prices.

Meanwhile, Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo yesterday vowed to work for the abolition of NFA Council if President Duterte will formally ask Congress to do it.

“Well if he asks for it, then we will work on it,” she told reporters. “I’m neither here nor there. It can be abolished, it can be retained. If it’s a President’s policy call, we will work on it.”

Duterte on Tuesday said he would recommend to Congress that the council be abolished since “it has not done any purpose; it only hinders the operation.”

The President said he has been advocating rice tarrification to allow anyone to import rice to avoid shortage.

The NFA Council is composed of representatives from the Department of Finance (DOF) , National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), Landbank and the farming sector.

The House of Representatives has already approved on final reading the bill House Bill No. 7735 which seeks to liberalize rice imports by replacing the quantitative import restrictions on rice with tariffs, a priority measure of the administration.

Rep. Luis Raymond Villafuerte ( NP, Camarines Sur), one of the bill’s authors, called on the Senate to pass the measure “to clear the way for more rice imports into the country and pull down the retail cost of the staple by as much as P7 per kilo.”

Villafuerte said he is now in favor of barring private traders from importing rice as he backed President Duterte’s multi-pronged plans to stabilize the retail price and supply of rice as a way to counter the inflation uptrend.

Aside from tariffication, the President also cited other measures such as exploring the option of buying cheap rice from Sabah and reviving barter trade in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and neighboring states in the region; prosecuting traders manipulating rice prices; streamlining processes for rice imports; and dismantling checkpoints responsible for jacking up the cost of rice and other food items from farms to the markets.

Villafuerte said the President’s proposal to revive the decades-old barter trade in southern Mindanao “will not only help stabilize rice supply in the South but will also boost economic trade in that part of the country and its neighboring economies in the region.” 

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