Duterte denies rice shortage

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 3) — Amid the move to allow more rice imports, President Rodrigo Duterte denied on Monday that the country is short of the staple.

"Ngayon sinasabi nila na ay shortage daw ng bigas, eh marami naman bigas eh," Duterte said in Filipino before the Filipino community during his visit in Israel. "Sumobra nga eh. You know, those are politics [sic]."

[Translation: They say there is a  rice shortage, but there is a lot of rice... We even have an excess. You know, (this is) politics.]

The National Food Authority Council's approval to ship more rice from abroad is expected to bring down retail prices. Zamboanga City previously declared a state of calamity due to lack of rice. From about ₱40, rice prices rose to around ₱60 to ₱70 per kilogram during this crisis.

Before leaving for Israel, Duterte warned retailers that law enforcers will open their warehouses if they engage in hoarding to manipulate prices.

Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol backed up the President's remarks of enough rice supply. In an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source on Monday, he attributed the price hike to speculation in the wake of late arrival of rice shipments.

"There is no rice shortage. But there was indeed a spike in the prices of rice in the market, and this was caused by the delayed importation of NFA rice and even the commercial rice imported by the private sector," Piñol explained.

"When the NFA rice disappeared in the market, when the importation of the private sector was delayed, speculators came in and it caused a spike," he added.

Piñol clarifies idea to 'legalize smuggling'

The Agriculture chief also clarified reports about his proposal to legalize smuggled rice.

"That's an oxymoron. How can you legalize smuggling?" said Piñol. "I must admit maybe I'm getting lousy with my communication skills."

Piñol explained he meant regulating imported rice in the southern provinces of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi (Zambasulta). He said this was an offshoot of rampant smuggling in the area, adding it is difficult to crack down on smuggling because of porous borders in the island provinces.

He said it is better to streamline imports and monitor them, including the possiblity of setting up a rice trading center in the region.

"Anybody who would like to bring in rice must have this covered within import papers, they have to go through quarantine inspections, they have to go through sanitary and phytosanitary inspection, and most of all, they have to pay tariffs," he said. "And the volume should only be enough to feed the Zambasulta area."

Piñol said provinces in there also have to begin producing rice to become less dependent on outside supply.

CNN Philippines Correspondent Ina Andolong contributed to this story.