Agriculture Secretary: NFA is in limbo

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 3) — Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol on Monday said the National Food Authority is an agency in limbo, but he refused to comment on calls for its abolition.

Demands for the dissolution of the authority come amid jacked up market prices of rice. A state of calamity was even declared in Zamboanga City, where commercial prices rose up to ₱70 per kilogram. Pinol said prices should have stayed along the ₱40 range, adding that there is price speculation but no rice crisis.

"I would describe it as an agency in limbo. That's all," Piñol told CNN Philippines' The Source, referring to the NFA.

When pressed, Piñol noted that NFA was the "the only [World Trade Organization]-acknowledged and accredited trading agency of the Philippines."

"The problem with the NFA... is it has been so focused on rice alone. It is called the National Food Authority," he said. "In fact, if you were to ask me what its other function should be, dapat siya ay magiging export agency ng produkto natin [the export agency for our products]. Let's not leave it to our farmers."

The NFA Administration and the NFA Council, each blame the other for the hike in rice prices. The Department of Agriculture is neither a supervisor of the NFA nor a member of the Council, although it is concerned with the distribution of products like rice.

But Piñol said the structure is beside the point. He said the NFA did not have to be under the DA "if there [was] greater collaborative effort" between the two government bodies. He added that he only dipped his finger in the Zamboanga rice crisis because "nobody was handling [it]."

He also said the NFA council members are technocrats who have good intentions but are not grounded.

Piñol explains 'bukbok rice' video

Critics have called for the secretary's resignation, amid his reported proposal to legalize smuggled rice. Piñol has since clarified the idea, saying he only meant to suggest regulating imported rice in the region of Western Mindanao.

He said anybody who wants to bring in rice must have the proper documents and pay tariffs and duties. Piñol also explained his proposal to put up a rice trading center was supported by local officials in the region.

Apart from high prices and reported shortage, the government has also been slammed for weevil-infested rice. This comes on top of reports that galunggong, or round scad fish, was tainted with the toxic chemical formalin — although this was later refuted by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

In Facebook videos shared by Piñol, the secretary washed supposedly infested rice, cooked it, and ate it alongside galunggong to demonstrate the food was edible. He clarified that he was not advising the public to settle for substandard rice, but he made the video in response to calls that the rice to be thrown out or fed to animals.

"If it could be proven that the rice was already infested with weevil before it left the port of origin, the NFA should return it," said Piñol. "But the other side of the story was, hindi porke may bukbok, hindi na pwedeng kainin [just becauese there are weevils, doesn't mean it cannot be eaten]. That was my message."

He also denied the alleged presence of formalin in galunggong altogether.

Piñol had pushed for allowing more imported rice and fish, in a bid to take prices down. However, consumer groups and fisherfolk believe the government should strengthen local producers instead, as imports could make them even poorer.

Congressmen of the Makabayan bloc filed a resolution at the House of Representatives to halt the galunggong importation order.

Amid the criticism, Piñol maintained that he would not leave his post.

"If the President feels that I am of no use anymore to this administration, I would be happy to leave," he said. "But I'm a fighter. You don't quit in the middle of the fight."

President Rodrigo Duterte himself has also said he will not boot the secretary.