Senator blasts NFA chief for creating rice shortage panic

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NFA Administrator Jason Aquino

Story updated to include statement of Sen. Cynthia Villar.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 27) — The National Food Authority (NFA) received a tongue-lashing from a senator on Tuesday for sowing panic and confusion when the agency announced a shortage of affordable rice. 

During the first Senate hearing on the country's rice supply, Senator Cynthia Villar, who is also the chair of Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, confronted NFA chief Jason Aquino.

"Nag-press release ang NFA na wala daw silang NFA rice. Iba ang state ng rice supply of the Philippines versus the NFA rice. Sana hindi na lang nag press release ang NFA kasi they created confusion... Parang gusto niyo gumawa ng panic," she said. 

[Translation: The NFA told the media there was shortage. The state of rice supply is different from the supply of NFA rice. It would have been best if the NFA did not issue press releases because they created confusion. It's as if you wanted to create panic.]

She went on to scold Aquino for holding media interviews instead of doing his job.

"Kung wala kang buffer stock, hindi ba dapat manahimik ka dahil hindi mo nagawa ang trabaho mo? Do your work... Hindi ba dapat mahiya ka at nanahimik na lang at gawan mo ng paraan? " Villar told Aquino.

[Translation: If there is no buffer stock, didn't you think you should have kept quiet because you failed to do your job? Do your work.]

The buffer stock is kept for calamities and disasters.

Aquino, during the February 7 media briefing, said there was a low supply of affordable rice, but there was no commercial rice shortage. It said NFA's buffer stock was only good for two days instead of the mandatory 15-day buffer stock.

Aquino defended the move to announce it, saying they disclosed the supply situation for transparency.

"I just told the truth that NFA has depleting supply of rice," he said.

But Senator Grace Poe told Aquino, in making such announcements, the public must be given assurance by offering solutions.

"Tama naman 'yung pagiging transparent mo. Pero sana meron kang solusyon [You're right in wanting to be transparent. But you must offer a solution]. You have to be very cautious balancing transparency and also offering an alternative," she said.

Aquino stood by his statement on shortage of government-subsidized rice, noting the buffer stock is now good for only at 1.7 days, from two days in February. 

NFA rice is more affordable at P27 to P32 per kilo compared to commercial rice, which used to sell from P36 to P65 per kilo prior to the supposed NFA rice shortage. The price of commercial rice has shot up after the NFA announced the shortage.

"Rice (prices) truly spiked. It now ranges from P45 to P50 per kilo, and beyond," Alliance of Grains Industry Stakeholders Chair Teresa Alegado said.

National Economic and Development Authority Assistant Secretary Mercedita Sombilla said the NFA announcement led to the increase in prices of commercial rice.

'NFA failed to do its mandate'

Villar said NFA's liability is their failure to do their mandate, but she is not recommending Aquino's dismissal.

"In-appoint sila ng President. It's for the president to decide kung ano ang sanction, maybe papagalitan sila or tatanggalin sila or they will be given another chance to do it. It's not my prerogative," she said.

But Senator Bam Aquino wants the NFA chief to resign for failing to ensure food security for the Filipinos, especially the poor.

"We are talking about food security for the poorest Filipino families. We need someone who can get the job done," the senator said.

Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol assured the public there is no rice shortage in the country. He, however, said middlemen and rice traders are causing the price of commercial rice to go up.

On February 12, the NFA approved the importation of 250,000 metric tons of rice to arrive in June. It said they expect the prices of rice to stabilize as as soon as the imported rice arrives.

The importation that will happen in June will augment the shortage in the buffer stock of NFA rice to 15 days, which can bring back the old price in the market.

For now, the Senate committee recommends an increase in farmgate price to P18 from P17 per kilo to compete with traders who take advantage of the situation and sell NFA rice at a higher price. P18 per kilo is equivalent to P30 market price.

The panel will also request for an executive order for the President to donate smuggled rice to the NFA to address the shortage in NFA rice.