WHILE one can cite other factors that contributed to the steep rise in rice prices such that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had to order a price cap of P41 per kilogram for regular milled rice and P45 for well-milled rice, the Chief Executive’s insistence on concurrently being the Agriculture secretary inarguably helped lead to this sorry state.
Never before has a president held such a crucial position — and really on an absentee basis — 14 months into his presidency. It’s just common sense in managing a large organization: You can’t have the captain concurrently as chief engineer looking after the engines at the lowest deck.
One result is that we have even been getting conflicting reports from the Agriculture department on such crucial data as rice stocks.
“Our rice stocks are enough for the next few months, we’re also in the middle of planting season, and we’re expecting harvest by August and September,” said Agriculture undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian in a public briefing last August 3. A few weeks later the Agriculture undersecretary for policy, planning and regulations, Mercedita Sombilla, told a House committee that the country was experiencing a rice shortage amid an insufficient buffer stock, as the total stock is pegged at 39 days in August and 44 days in September compared to the 60- to 90-day buffer stock needed.”
If you were a rice trader, how would you see these conflicting reports? Most likely there is a rice shortage looming, and the Agriculture department is concealing this development, which prods him to wait before he releases his stocks.
In June, days before he assumed office, Marcos said: “It’s important that the president take that portfolio not only to make it clear to everyone what high priority we put to the agricultural sector, but also as a practical matter, so that things move quickly.”
It turns out that the Agriculture department in practice has become his administration’s lowest priority, with the President, sources in that department say, having visited its headquarters only twice. The first was on July 4, his first and only meeting with the department’s executive committee. And the second, a week later, but to meet only with his representative Leocadio Sebastian (who was fired a month later) and a few directors.
Contrast his two visits to the Agriculture department to the 24 “social and leisure” activities he has attended in and outside the Palace. In effect, rather than things “moving quickly” for the Agriculture department, these have all stopped, leaderless.
Nobody in the department is really taking seriously its 83-year-old “senior undersecretary” Domingo Panganiban. (While the “senior” designation was intended to put him on a higher rank than the three other undersecretaries, the joke in the department is that it is the only department headed by a “senior,” with the more cruel joke alluding to that feared malady of that age.)
Panganiban was dragged from retirement to replace Leocadio Sebastian who was removed as Marcos’ de facto representative in the department after he signed a sugar import order “for the President” — which he did not have the authority to do so. Agri officials applauded his removal though, as he couldn’t get along with his subordinates, which was expected, they said, as he was a scientist, and not a bureaucrat.
Failure to lead the department would be close to mismanaging the presidency, since the Agriculture department is now practically the most critical government institution as its area of responsibility, the food sector, is far from being sound. Rising prices of sugar and other food items already have had a severe impact on the economy, as these have been the biggest factor for our still high inflation rates. The annual inflation rate rose to 5.3 percent from last July’s 16-month low of 4.7 percent, mainly because of the 8.1 percent rise in food prices.
Our agriculture sector has gone from bad to worse, not just because of its structural weaknesses, but because of the worldwide rise in oil prices resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Petroleum products account for 20 percent of crops’ production cost, while for livestock, it is 50 percent. A huge chunk of retail food prices is also due to transport costs. Fishermen’s biggest cost is fuel for their boats.
The past Rodrigo Duterte government undertook a P3 billion fuel subsidy program for farmers to mitigate rising fuel costs. Has the current administration ordered studies to find out the bottlenecks in the distribution of such subsidies, and how much more is needed? Prices of that sector’s main output — rice and sugar — and even vegetables have risen to historic highs.
And other than massive importations, the department appears to have no idea how to stop the rise of what is really the most important concern of ordinary people — food prices.
The point is that events outside the country, mainly Russia’s screwing the world, unsettling economies, and climate change’s effects on food supplies — because of the unusual severity and frequency of storms and drought — should have put the Agriculture department on crisis mode. Having a part-time Agriculture department head is like having a part-time warship commander as it approaches hostile forces.
I can’t understand why Marcos took the job of concurrent Agriculture secretary (which no other president has done) when he really hasn’t any experience in managing a huge bureaucracy nor does he have any expertise in agricultural production. Hubris, that only he alone could do the job?
Marcos probably had no idea what the presidency requires, and again, it was probably also pride that prevented him from consulting with his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte who, at least going by people’s satisfaction polls, has been the most successful president so far.
Indeed no one who hasn’t been president or worked in the Palace would know that more than 70 percent of presidential time is eaten up by ceremonial and social functions, such as foreign dignitaries as well as of athletes winning international competitions; speaking during anniversaries of organizations, in oath-takings and meetings of the Cabinet and other officials and meetings with businessmen.
Not only that; Marcos seems to relish foreign trips, that he has had 14 so far. Taking an average of 4 days’ travel time, he has spent more than a month airborne and in foreign capitals. How could he have thought he had time to be Agriculture secretary?
If the Agriculture department fails to control the rise in prices of rice, sugar and even vegetable crops, it will be Marcos of course who will be blamed. The department’s failure will pull down the economy, because food prices are a major component of inflation. Not only that. Marcos’ legitimacy as a good government head will be very seriously eroded. What was he thinking?
It is uncanny that it is after a year in office that Marcos Jr. faces a rice crisis, and orders a clampdown on alleged hoarders, which he thinks have pushed up artificially the price of rise. It was also after martial law, when his father faced a similar crisis, and also ordered a crackdown on hoarders. The strongman Marcos survived that crisis to rule 12 more years. But then it was the military that ran after the hoarders. Now, it is one of the weakest departments, the Trade and Industry, which Marcos ordered to implement his directives.
“Marcos, resign?” Again? I’m too old for that 1970s slogan. Just resign as Agriculture secretary. It can’t be a night job for the President. And given the morass that department — as well as the entire agricultural sector is in — it is political suicide for Marcos to be heading it.
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