Rice tariffication hurdles through bicam

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 23) — The bill lifting rice imports in exchange for tariffs hurdles the bicameral conference committee, two steps short of becoming a law.

Senate agriculture committee chair Cynthia Villar told reporters senators and representatives adopted most of the provisions in the Senate version. The bill goes back to the Senate amd House of Representatives for ratification. It will then be submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte for signing into law.

Villar said the bill established the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, which would allot ₱10 billion yearly for assistance to rice farmers as they face competition from the opening of rice importation. The National Food Authority will be stripped off its regulatory powers over rice imports.

"Based on study kaya hindi sila [the reason why they are not] (local rice farmers) competitive, mahal ang kanilang labor cost [their labor cost is more expensive] compared to Vietnam. So we are going to mechanize," Villar said.

"So half, ₱5 billion of the ₱10 billion will go to mechanization so that they can compete. Because that is the highest cost difference, iyong [the] labor. And then ₱3 billion will go to seeds. Tuturuan silang maging [They will be taught to be] seed growers ng [of] inbred seeds ng PhilRice," she said.

In certifying the measure as urgent in October, Duterte said the bill aims to "address the urgent need to improve availability of rice in the country, prevent rice shortage, reduce prices of rice, and curtail the prevalence of corruption and cartel domination in the rice industry."

Once enacted, businesses and individuals can buy rice from foreign sources and just pay the 40 percent tariff. Tax proceeds will fund programs to help farmers such as mass irrigation, rice storage and research initiatives.

Senate economic affairs committee chair Win Gatchalian previously told CNN Philippines' On The Record that the measure is expected to generate ₱10 billion in taxes for the government, which can support farmers.

But farmers groups and think tank IBON Foundation warned that the measure would "displace rice farmers and worsen food insecurity without solving the problem of expensive rice."

IBON added that the ₱10-billion rice competitiveness fund is insufficient to support farmers and pales in comparison to the industry support given to rice producers in Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, India, Japan and China.

But Villar said farmers simply "did not read" the bill.

She added that the mechanization of rice production pushed for in the bill would give farmers' cooperatives tractors, transplanters, harvesters, dryers and millers.

"That means kung gusto na nilang i-turn ang kanilang produkto to rice, they can do it. And kung sa [cooperatives] ito ibibigay, iyong [cooperative] nila makipag-usap na sa retailers na diretso na sila. They will supply diretso sa mga consumer and retailer," Villar said.

[Translation: That means if they want to turn their product into rice, they can do it. And if this is given to cooperatives, their cooperative would talk to retailers directly. They will supply directly to consumers and retailers.]

Villar said she expects the Senate to ratify the committee conference report before Congress goes on a five-week break beginning Dec. 15.

Once the report is ratified by both houses of Congress, it would be sent to President Rodrigo Duterte for his signature.

Bicam panel OKs coco levy bill

Meanwhile, Villar said the same panel also passed the Coco Levy Trust Fund bill for the second time, after senators scrambled to avert a veto from Duterte over his objection to the composition of the trust fund board.

Under the bill, the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) would be reconstituted and would manage the coco levy fund.

Presently, the PCA is composed of a Cabinet official, the Agriculture Secretary or his representative, two other government representatives, two members recommended by the Philippine Coconut Producers Federation and a member recommended by the United Coconut Association of the Philippines.

The first version proposed that the PCA be composed of the Agriculture Secretary as chairman, the Finance Secretary as vice chairman, the Budget Secretary as administrator, another Cabinet member and six representatives of coconut farmers as members.

Duterte rejected this as he wants more government representatives in the PCA, Senate Majority Leader Migz Zubiri said.

Villar said under the revised bill, the PCA would be composed of eight representatives from the government-from the departments of Agriculture, Finance, Budget, Trade, Science and Technology, the National Economic Development Authority, Land Bank of the Philippines, Development Bank of the Philippines, and six coconut farmer representatives.

The bill to distribute the coconut levy fund is one of Duterte's priority bills in his third State of the Nation Address.

Villar said the coconut levy fund, which was taken from a tax imposed on coconut farmers during the Marcos regime, would be distributed to the farmers in tranches at ₱5 billion a year for the next 25 years.

Coconut farmers would also get ₱10 billion a year in aid, she added.