Roque disputes Piñol over NFA Council abolition
Does President Duterte want to abolish the NFA Council, the policymaking body of the National Food Authority, to end the conflict between the two over the shortage in the supply of government-subsidized rice?
Yes, says Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol. No, says presidential spokesperson Harry Roque.
The confusion over what the President intended to do with the NFA Council followed a meeting between Mr. Duterte and rice traders on Thursday night.
“He has abolished the NFA Council and he will transfer the NFA and other agencies related to agriculture that were removed from the Department of Agriculture back to the DA,” Piñol said in an interview with dzMM radio on Friday.
In the meeting with the rice merchants, Mr. Duterte said he wanted to remove bureaucratic bottlenecks in the rice trade, according to James Magbanua, national president of the Grains Retailers Confederation of the Philippines.
“I don’t want so many complications … As long as there is no abuse, no corruption, no excesses and no shortchanging, I will be there to support (the rice traders),” Magbanua quoted the President as saying.
Both Roque and Piñol were at the meeting.
Asked whether the President had abolished the council, Roque replied, “No.”
“It’s NFA that will be transferred to (the Office of the President) with the council,” he said.
He also said Mr. Duterte is considering centralizing the approval of rice importations under Agriculture Undersecretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat.
Puyat’s decisions would be reviewed by the Office of the Executive Secretary, he added.
In a speech during a belated birthday celebration hosted for him by a member of the House of Representatives after his meeting with rice traders,
Mr. Duterte said he told NFA Administrator Jason Aquino that he still trusted him.
He said there were indications of a possible shortage and directed Aquino to ignore the NFA Council and to import rice. He did not say how much should be imported.
Ignore rice council
“It is not really an actual shortage. But when you start to see something which is also true, it cannot be rumormongering because what is at stake is the stomach of the people. I told him, ‘Ignore the rice council which is mandated by law, go ahead and make the importations,’” he said.
Thursday’s meeting between the President and the rice traders came amid reports of dwindling NFA rice reserves and growing friction between the grains agency and its policymaking body.
Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, who chairs the NFA Council, earlier said the NFA was creating an artificial rice shortage by saying its reserves had been wiped out.
Evasco said the NFA’s statement could prompt rice traders to hoard their stocks in anticipation of higher prices. He also said there was enough rice in the country, as attested to by the DA.
The 18-member council, which includes representatives from financial institutions and other related agencies, has the authority to approve or reject proposals from the NFA management.
Members of its board include officials from the NFA, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Landbank of the Philippines, Development Bank of the Philippines, National Economic and Development Authority, Office of the President, and a representative from rice farmers.
The DA has no representative on the board.
Council as watchdog
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who served as assistant for food security and agricultural modernization under former President Benigno Aquino III, said Mr. Duterte could not unilaterally scrap the council because it was created by a presidential decree.
He said the council serves as a watchdog against corruption in rice procurement and smuggling, and acts as a check on the NFA administrator.
Abolishing the council would be turning a blind eye to allegations of corruption “and condones incompetence and mismanagement” by NFA Administrator Aquino, he said.
“He (Aquino) and not the NFA Council should be removed from the public management of the country’s rice supply,” he added.
Under the previous administration, Pangilinan was tasked to do “house cleaning” in four agencies that were moved from the agriculture department to the Office of the President—NFA, Philippine Coconut Authority, National Irrigation Administration, and Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority.
In the radio interview, Piñol said the President was looking to return the four agencies to the DA.
He added that the President wanted only one focal person for each agency to streamline operations.
“That is his style of governance because he believes that if he only talks to one person, he’ll get only one [set of] data and there is no other person to blame, and I also believe in this concept,” Piñol said.
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