It’s been a year and eight days since the ban on the appointment of election “losers” was lifted.
Prior to his trip to the US of A, the president hinted he was considering some of these to head vacancies in the cabinet, perhaps even taking over existing filled-up positions.
But we wonder, why reserve posts for election losers? Do they have a monopoly of wisdom and a wealth of experience that no one else has?
Last week, the president said “tapos na ang OJT”—and indicated he might go beyond just filling up three Cabinet positions currently without “permanent” leaders, which we all presume to mean the DOH, the DND, and the DA where he himself acts as the head.
All three are very, very important posts that touch on three of our most pressing national concerns: health, food security, and national security.
Let me just focus today on food security.
We can roll out heavily subsidized Kadiwa stores each week wherever else in the country, but we will not be near enough to solving the high prices of food that bedevils every family in this country save for perhaps 5 percent of the very rich.
Last year, just as the present administration started, the DA already knew that there would be a supply problem with sugar. They briefed the president who was concurrent agriculture secretary.
Acting in understandable haste, the undersecretary whom the president entrusted with day-to-day activities in the department caused the issuance of an SRA permit to import 600,000 metric tons of sugar with him signing in behalf of the president.
That caused such a political tempest complete with Senate investigations that the undersecretary manned up to, knowing that he was in the right.
For political optics bereft of economic sense, the import permits were canceled, the SRA leadership and the undersecretary’s head were chopped (albeit temporarily in the case of the undersecretary).
The controversy also added to the travails of an executive secretary who was asked to resign so early in a new president’s term.
Retail prices of the commodity rose to heights never before experienced, from 70 pesos per kilo to 110, leaving food processing businesses to increase their prices, further fueling an inflation that was supply-driven more than demand-pulled.
Those prices were never really tamed, despite the optical illusion peddled by the unsustainable Kadiwa stores.
Now the senior undersecretary issues motu propio an import permit for 440,000 tons of sugar, and by himself awarded the entire caboodle to three traders, absent the usual bidding processes.
Another Senate investigation has begun, although the senior undersecretary was absent, even if the Cabinet’s primus inter pares, the executive secretary whose authority the USec invoked was present.
The entire shipment of the 440,000 has yet to arrive, but just yesterday, the president mismo authorized another 150,000 metric tons.
Meanwhile, have prices moved down? No.
I cannot for the life of me recall a crisis in that kitchen necessity called onions until this administration came to fore.
Can you imagine paying 700 pesos for a kilo of food onions?
Nowhere else in the world, such that the Philippines has once more entered the Guinness almanac of the unusual, as to stumble upon the shoals of an ordinary aromatic.
Just when we thought we were over it after the December to February price upsurge, the DA now tells us that we will need to import at least 75,000 tons of the pungent bulbs so that we will not experience the same shortages in the latter part of this year, even if prices have begun to rise.
But onion farmers from Nueva Ecija, Pangasinan and Occidental Mindoro are crying they were shortchanged by the usual culprits—the middlemen, and were paid not just half but a quantum of the retail prices the TV networks bandy in their newscasts.
Meanwhile too, the earlier decapitated USec was resurrected, because he was after all just a fall guy, and who, had he been followed, may have been able to temper the price upsurge of sugar.
But this time, he was given charge of the single most important staple—rice.
Via a memorandum issued by the Executive Secretary by authority of the President dated April 20, 2023, the Senior Undersecretary was granted “general supervision” over the DA’s operations and personnel, while the resurrected undersecretary would have “oversight of operational activities and matters concerning the rice industry.”
The memorandum enumerated the fine lines of distinction of authority.
Among others, the resurrected USec would chair the NFA, the NIA, the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund Program, PhilRice and the IRRI Board of Trustees.
Now it just so happens that rice occupies pre-eminence in the hierarchy of DA’s concerns, and has the heftiest portion of the total budget.
Overlaps in functions and authorities will surely arise between the senior undersecretary who is truly so senior in age, and the resurrected undersecretary charged with the very important problem of ensuring there will be enough stocks of rice at affordable prices.
As we write, government holds less than 500,000 sacks of rice or 25,000 metric tons, equivalent to less than a day of the national consumption.
Practice through every previous administration till the previous one where we had a rice supply crisis in 2018 mandates that government should have 30 days inventory when the lean months (July till September or the monsoon season) begin.
That’s just around the corner.
The NFA asked the president to authorize the importation of 300,000 tons, equivalent to some nine days (just nine days) enough to ensure they would be able to supply the DSWD and LGU’s with rice in the event of natural calamities.
That was about a month ago, but no action has yet been taken.
The usual naysayers cajole the NFA and its newly appointed administrator for wanting to import. Why not buy local?, they insist.
That’s what the 2019 law called the Rice Tarrification Law imposes.
The problem is, the “privates” in the industry—miller, traders, buyers, etc., have been buying palay at 21 to 24 pesos per kilo, while the NFA Council has authorized the NFA to peg its buying at 19 pesos per kilo.
Congress may have given NFA a budget of 9 billion pesos, but no one is selling to government, because the privates “have it.”
And the privates who have mastered the intricacies of the market are buying high because they sense some “good news” in the air.
Their “good” news is bad news for everyone else.
Meanwhile too, Indonesia has a standing order of 2 million tons, but the ASEAN country from which it earlier contracted with has failed to deliver even a quarter of its import order.
Will our private importers be able to source enough?
Or have they pre-purchased and are waiting for the right crunch time to unload, when prices shall have soared?
Sugar, onions, corn, smuggled vegetables, and soon rice?
Is anyone really in charge?
Who’s minding the store?