More fallout from sugar mess

SRA board member quits, but Zubiri demands all agency execs resign

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri on Monday called on all officials of the Sugar Regulatory Administration to resign, even as current SRA board member Roland Beltran yesterday said he was resigning due to health reasons.

OVER FOOD AND SUGAR. In this photo posted by the Office of the President on his official Facebook page, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (seated, third from right) meets with members of the Philippine Chamber of Food Manufacturers Inc. at Malacanang on Monday night.

In his privilege speech, Zubiri also called for a Senate investigation into the unauthorized release of Sugar Order No. 4.

The order would have authorized the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar, a move President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. disallowed as concurrent Agriculture Secretary and chairman of the SRA board.

Meanwhile, Marcos on Monday sat down with the country’s top food manufacturers to discuss the country’s sugar supply and food prices.

In a Facebook post by the Office of the President, Marcos discussed ways to solve the looming supply shortage of sugar with the members of the Philippine Chamber of Food Manufacturers.

“The President vows to have systems in place to manage the price increase so that businesses are kept running and job security is ensured,” the OP added.

Earlier, Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian also resigned and apologized to Marcos for approving the sugar order and using the

President’s signature without his consent.

Beltran, who represented sugar millers on the SRA board, was one of the signatories of the unauthorized importation order. He is the first official of the sugar agency to resign over the issue.

Technically, Sebastian is not an official of the SRA, as he was only representing Marcos on the Sugar Board as the chief of staff of the Agriculture Secretary.

“We still have 126,336 metric tons (of sugar) in warehouses, 40-foot containers all over Metro Manila, and (stocks with) other traders which are yet to be released. Why are not they releasing the sugar? Are they creating an artificial shortage? So that when the price skyrockets, they will come out with it and earn that much?” Zubiri asked.

Senator Grace Poe said the full force of the law must be brought upon all sugar hoarders who are creating an artificial shortage and jacking up the price of the commodity in the country.

Poe added that all government officials and employees who make possible all undue importations that cause the people to suffer must be held accountable.

“Cases should be filed against them. They embarrassed President Marcos. They should resign and be sued, and taught a lesson. For the record, they lied because they said there was no sugar,” Zubiri added.

Beltran noted that he had already left the SRA on July 1 as he reached the end of his tour of duty in the agency but resumed after being informed that he was on holdover capacity.

In a letter to Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez dated Aug. 14, Beltran said he was resigning due to health reasons, but added that this is without prejudice to any investigation that may be conducted in connection with the issuance of Sugar Order No. 4.”

Beltran also said his vote was conditional, subject to the compliance of provisions of law.

Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. is the other SRA board member, representing sugar planters. He was appointed to the post early this month.

Sebastian, Marcos’ chief of staff at the Department of Agriculture (DA), said he took full responsibility for signing the order, which the Palace said was “illegal.”

Sebastian defended his decision to approve the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar during the joint briefing conducted by the House committees on good government and public accountability and on agriculture and food on Monday.

Sebastian told legislators that his decision was based on the data from the SRA.

“I signed the documents based on the data presented to me by the Sugar Regulatory Administration,” he said, citing “a clear indication of the rapidly diminishing supply of sugar. Current supply is projected to run out in August 2022 this month,” he said.

But food processing companies said they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of some 150,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar in the last quarter—held out as a possibility by the Palace–as demand normally shoots up towards Christmas.

Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) president George Barcelon said it’s no industry secret that the shortage in local sugar output has sent prices shooting upwards in a matter of weeks.

“The importation of 150,000 MT tons will give the food processors a breather,” Barcelon, who blamed the shortage on lower production due to calamities.

Barcelon added that the Trade Department should coordinate with the DA and the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to institute a monitoring system to avoid future food-related crises.

“There should be a system of balancing supply versus price so the local sugar farmers and mills would not be unduly impacted, and the consumers of processed food and beverage products will not be burdened,” he said.

Processed mango exporter HI-Las Marketing Corporation said the food processing industry needs more than the importation volume authorized by Malacañang.

“We asked for 500,000 MT. We need refined sugar for our industry. However, we support the importation of 150,000 MT so that price will go down,” said HI-Las president Roberto Angelo Amores II.

Meanwhile, a group of farmers said importation may lower farm gate prices for sugar and molasses.

Amidst the rising cost of production, the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) pointed out that the government has not yet offered fertilizer subsidies to sugar planters.

The price of fertilizer has gone up to P2,400 – P2,700 per bag from P800/bag in crop year 2021-2022.

UMA spokesperson John Milton Lozande said the milling season traditionally starts in September and lasts until May, while the milling season peaks from November to December of any given year.

This year two refineries, the Universal Robina Corporation-Central Azucarera de la Carlota (URC-CAC) and Victorias Milling Company (VMC) have said they will start milling by Aug. 15 to increase the supply of refined sugar in the market.

“If the government … pushes through with the importation of sugar by October this year, it would be no different to the importation of rice also during the harvest season that lowers the farm gate prices of rice farmers and only traders would benefit for both crops,” Lozande said.

On the other hand, the Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) said the resignation of Sebastian will not absolve him, nor his co-signatories from criminal liability after they issued the order allowing the importation of 300,000 MT sugar.

SINAG chairman Rosendo So said the probe should include the culpability of other officials of the DA and SRA who were responsible for recommending and approving Sugar Order No. 4.

He also called for an inquiry into the sudden surge in the retail price of sugar, from P80 per kilo two weeks ago to P100 per kilo as of Aug. 12.

So recalled that in a previous meeting with President Marcos, Executive Secretary Rodriguez and SRA officials, no tacit approval was given to import 300,000 MT of sugar.

As local producers have started milling their own product, the directive given to the SRA was to conduct consultations to determine if there is an actual supply shortfall that would merit importation.

Sebastian, however, signed the importation order without the approval of Marcos, who as DA chief is also the chairman of the SRA.

In his weekly vlog, Marcos said the country has a sufficient supply of sugar even as he vowed to make fertilizers affordable for farmers.

He said the country’s current sugar inventory is enough and there is no need to import just yet.

He also said the local supply should be consumed before the country resorts to importation.

In his calculation, Marcos noted that the supply might dwindle by October.

Malacanang earlier called for a probe into the “unauthorized” signing of a document by the members of the SRA that directed the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar.

Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said Marcos, as board chairman, did not authorize the importation and did not sign any resolution or order to allow such a move.

But the Philippine Sugar Millers Association (PSMA) on Monday said it supported Sugar Order 4, saying it was necessary because an earlier

order that would have authorized the importation of 200,000 MT of sugar was stopped by the courts, resulting in high sugar prices.

“If Sugar Order number 3 was realized, the rise in sugar prices wouldn’t be astronomic,” said PSMA president Pablo Lobregat.

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