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P20/kg rice ‘not possible today’

Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr.
Othel V. Campos & Macon Ramos-Araneta

“Laurel cites high prices in world market, need to change laws”

Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. on Monday said President Marcos’ campaign promise of bringing rice down to P20 per kilo is not possible at present, even as the country is headed for a record-high paddy rice output of over 20 million metric tons (MT) this year.

“The P20 per kilo was an aspiration, right? The problem now is that we are at a 15-year high in the world market… Today that is not possible,” Laurel said in a mix of English and Filipino, at his first press briefing as head of the Department of Agriculture (DA).

“But with the President’s directive to modernize, irrigate, use the right seeds, mechanize, and all of that, we are getting ready to do our best, to try to make rice affordable for the people,” he added.

Laurel said it was possible to lower the price of rice, but did not say by how much.

“It is possible to lower the price, definitely. But we have to have our silos, we have to have buffer stock, we have to change some laws,” he said.

Among those are laws on fisheries and regulations on imports.

“Present laws in general are okay, but [they need] to be tweaked. Of course, we have to consult with the authors of the law. We have to change some laws,” he said.

Laurel also proposed the revival of the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) which was under the DA until the previous administration put it under the Philippine Statistics Authority.

He said to have the “right balance” in agriculture, data management is key, and bringing back the BAS will help.

Laurel, who replaced Mr. Marcos as the DA secretary on Friday, said the President’s order to him was to increase production across all agriculture sectors, particularly on rice.

“I am not pro-importation. I am pro-production. I [was] a producer in my past life (as a businessman) While I import, I produce more. So, I believe, Filipinos can produce a lot more,” he said.

Laurel also used his first press conference to dispel concerns about a conflict of interest, saying he has divested himself of his stake in his companies.

“DA is a full-time job. I have no time to do anything else,” he said.

Before his appointment as DA secretary, Laurel was the president of Frabelle Fishing Corp. He also was chairman of the Westpac Meat Processing Corp., president of Markham Resources Corp., and chairman of Bukidnon Hydro Energy Corp.

Opposition senators had raised the possibility of a conflict of interest upon learning of Laurel’s appointment.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III said “unfortunately, chosen was a successful businessman who’s in the agri sector.”

Laurel also denied that his appointment was payback for his contribution of P30 million to Marcos’ presidential campaign, saying taking the job was “a sacrifice.”

Agriculture Assistant Secretary Arnel de Mesa, meanwhile, said the relatively good weather and the lack of destructive typhoons in 2023 made the bumper harvest this year possible.

“By the end of the year we expect more than 20 million MT of harvested rice. By the end of the wet cropping season, end-November, we will have higher output,” he said.

The country loses an average of 500,000 to 600,000 metric tons of planted rice, annually, to typhoons.

The Philippines achieved record-high rice harvest in 2021 with an output of 19.96 million MT of paddy rice. In 2022, rice production dropped slightly to 19.76 million MT.

De Mesa said the DA expects the national inventory to be at 90 days’ volume, including imports, which could last until the dry season cropping in March to April 2024.

“This is all in good timing. We still have imports that will come in the first quarter to bump up national inventory. I guess we’re good until the summer season. We won’t have any problems,” he added.

As of the third quarter, rice imports reached 3.8 million MT. The government expects more imports to arrive before the end of the year, but this will not exceed the volume that has already arrived in the first three quarters.

The DA said the local harvest will support the demand for the staple should imports arrive late.

The department also assured farmers that the price at which the government buys rice would remain constant, at P23 per kilo for dry palay and P18 for wet palay.

The occasional increase in the buying price is caused by traders who are buying local production in earnest as the global price of rice is on the rise, De Mesa said.

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