CANDON CITY - Rice traders, millers, and farmers are appealing to the Aquino administration to act immediately and decisively against the ''rampant'' rice smuggling in the country that has resulted in the flooding of the grain and lower demand for domestic rice.
Farmers said rice smuggling could imperil President Aquino's rice self-sufficiency goal this year if this is not stopped.
According to Abono Party-List chairman Rosendo So, the smuggling of rice, most of them from a neighboring country, is prevalent in the ports of Mindanao, particularly in Davao and Cebu, where the staple food is being misdeclared as slag, wood wall, tiles or ukay, citing documents he got from the Bureau of Customs (BOC).
''The rice contraband from Mindanao are being shipped to Luzon and sold by unscrupulous rice traders for P1,200 per sack, way below the usual price of P1,400 per sack of locally milled palays, which traders and millers usually bought at P17.50 a kilo,'' he said.
So -- who has been in the forefront of the campaign against smuggling of meat and other agricultural products -- warned of the disastrous impact of the continuing decline in the prices of domestic rice to the country's rice sector.
''Farmers fear that prices for locally produced grains would drop further. Millers are not buying because they cannot compete with the sheer volume of smuggled rice that has been flooding the market,'' added So, who along with Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile, met recently with a group of traders, millers, and farmers who complained about the unabated rice smuggling which they said is gravely affecting their businesses and production.
If the government fails to immediately stop the rice smuggling, local traders and millers would no longer buy the palay (unhusked or unmilled rice) to be harvested by farmers this summer due to the lower market demand, the Abono chairman warned.
''Traders and millers complained that they cannot compete with unscrupulous traders who are selling smuggled rice at P1,200 per sack. Worse, they cannot buy the palay at P17.50 a kilo this coming harvest time, because they still have plenty of rice stocks which they bought in the last season. Who will now buy the palay harvested by our farmers?'' So asked.
Meanwhile, Congress has acted on the public perception that the Philippines has become a ''center of rice smuggling'' with recent illegal shipments of Indian and Vietnamese rice worth P487 million through the Subic and Legazpi ports.
House committee on good government and public accountability chairman Rep. Jerry Treñas has already started a probe on the illegal rice importation in the Subic and Legazpi ports.
He said the inquiry was not only in aid of legislation but to prosecute smugglers and their protectors in government as well.
He noted that some P450 million worth of Indian white rice was seized at the Subic Bay Freeport earlier this year while at least 94,000 bags of rice on board the Vessel MINH Tuan 68 originating from Vietnam was likewise confiscated in Legazpi, Albay
''That's why we are appealing to the government not to be deaf to our pleas. Addressing the problem of rice smuggling will not only help Filipino farmers but will support President
Benigno S. Aquino III's vision of a rice self-sufficient Philippines by 2013,'' So added.
Earlier, the President announced that the nation would no longer import rice this year and that it will already be in a position to export long grain aromatic rice.
However, So warned that this objective might not be achieved if smuggling continues to hurt the local industry.
''If the government is really serious in achieving the targets set by the President, then they should heed this emergency call. Smuggling is killing the local rice industry, and if farmers and millers close shop since they could not compete with smuggled rice, the government can kiss their rice self-sufficiency target goodbye,'' the Abono party-list head said.
Meanwhile, a research by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) revealed that it is impossible for the Philippines to achieve a 100-percent rice self-sufficiency within this year or even throughout 2020.
The negative prediction, according to PIDS Senior Research Fellow Roehlano Briones, was based on factors such as strategies under the Food Staples Sufficiency Program (FSSP) as well as economic forces and behaviors of consumers, producers and markets, and unattainable targets.
Briones reported that the targets of the FSSP, crafted by the Department of Agriculture (DA), is highly ambitious. It projects that under the program, palay yields from 2011 to 2016 would grow from 3.78 to 4.53 t/ha (tons per hectare) respectively. Also, palay production would reach from 17.0 to 22.7 million tons during the same period.
However, Briones said historical data shows that both yield and production from 1994 to 2010 grew only from 1.5 to 3.2 percent respectively.
Budget allocated for the DA has been increased from P33 billion in 2010 to P55 billion this year. The increase is intended to fund various strategies, such as improving irrigation, sustaining research and development for new crop varieties, promoting mechanized on-farm and post-harvest strategies, and harnessing the potential of high-elevation and upland rice ecosystem, to achieve rice self-sufficiency.
However, Briones suggested that the only way to make rice self-sufficiency feasible is to increase barriers to rice imports. The drawback to this is that it will make rice substantially more expensive.
He added that increasing rice production alone would not eliminate rice importation.
''Self-sufficiency should not be equated to zero imports but rather be based on a broader set of criteria such as nutritional norms for rice consumption and rice affordability, among others,'' Briones said. (With a report from Carlo S. Suerte Felipe)