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Rice tariff scheme remains goal despite ‘surprise’ order to import more freely

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rice grains
PHILSTAR/KRIZ JOHN ROSALES

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte’s order for the “unimpeded” importation of rice has caught economic agencies off guard, though they pointed to the ultimate goal remains a rice tariff accompanied by freer inbound movement of the commodity.

National Food Authority (NFA) Director Angel G. Imperial, Jr., the agency’s spokesman, said he was “surprised” by Mr. Duterte’s directive.

“We were really surprised… that is why we did not know what to say yesterday,” Mr. Imperial told BusinessWorld in Filipino in a chance interview at the Palace on Wednesday after his economic briefing with Finance Assistant Secretary Antonio Joselito G. Lambino II and Trade Undersecretary for Consumer Protection Ruth B. Castelo.

During the briefing, Mr. Imperial said the President’s directive is not currently possible to implement because of the need to “submit it to the (NFA) Council so that we would have clear guidelines to follow.”

“Our principal, the Council, will still clarify this, at least with the chairperson of the Council, Secretary (Emmanuel F.) Piñol,” he added.

For his part, Mr. Lambino said: “The directive was issued Monday night. We are less than two days from that time. So we are, of course, happy that there is a massive streamlining that is underway. But what we want to get to is a tariffied regime.”

He added: “For that, we should be watching very closely and support, as much as we can, the movement in the Senate of the Rice Tariffication Bill. It is in amendment phase at the Senate, which means it’s in plenary then needs to go to bicam, before being signed into law.”

Mr. Imperial said, “We are managed by the (NFA) Council and all the things that we will be implementing should be approved by the Council so that there will be really clear guidelines to follow.”

The Department of Trade and Industry’s Ms. Castelo said: “Just a clarification on… the unimpeded importation of rice and vis-a-vis the NFA Council, NFA regulations on licensing and accreditation, it is the President’s directive and direction to make importation unimpeded, hassle-free, and with less restrictions; but currently, since we have the NFA regulations still in place while waiting for the Rice Tariffication Law, we still follow regulations although this is now less restrictive and easier for importers to bring in rice.”

“We’ll get to that destination as soon as we have the rice tariffication law. At the moment, we are still easing up the restrictions,” she added.

As for the timeline, Mr. Imperial said: “So far, I do not know. We will check.”

On Tuesday, Palace spokesperson Herminio L. Roque, Jr. announced that the President has ordered the unimpeded importation of rice in a bid to tame inflation.

Mr. Roque added that “the NFA no longer has any say on how much rice should be imported; anyone who can afford it and will pay tariffs will be allowed to import rice.”

“It’s a free market now for rice. No accreditation, no permits. Well, of course, they need to procure import permits, otherwise they might run into problems. But no one will have to approve the importation anymore, as long as they comply with the documentary requirements,” Mr. Roque said. — Arjay L. Balinbin