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EDITORIAL - Graft magnet

A cartel, according to some lawmakers, is manipulating rice prices and creating an artificial shortage of the nation’s staple, even as the government tries to stop any unwarranted price increase that may be attributed to the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN.

Whether the shortage is real or merely due to manipulation by a cartel, President Duterte has given in to the recommendations of a special council and approved the importation of an initial 250,000 metric tons of rice. The mode of importation is still being assessed.

With the importation approved, authorities must guard against seeing the move bogged down in controversy. Because of the consistently strong demand for the staple, rice trading has been a magnet for crooks. Previous importations were marred by controversy and allegations of corruption, especially in government-to-government deals.

Reports in recent years have pointed to one country in particular believed to be resorting to bribes to secure government-to-government rice deals. The Philippine importations were on such a scale that the country was blamed for pushing up rice prices in the world market even after the supply tightness had eased.

While moving swiftly to ensure a steady supply of rice, the government must also ramp up efforts to increase rice production. Some quarters argue that the country does not have abundant water resources like the Mekong River that runs through parts of China and Southeast Asia, allowing Thailand and Vietnam in particular to become major rice exporters.

Still, there’s a wide room for improvement in Philippine rice production. The country cannot abandon its objective of becoming self-sufficient if not a regular exporter of its staple. With greater farm support services including more efficient water resource management for irrigation, it is possible to boost rice production.

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Stronger measures are also needed to deal with anyone involved in hoarding and price manipulation. It’s curious that rice supply has dwindled and prices have spiked as the TRAIN law goes into effect. If authorities insist that there is no reason for rice prices to increase due to the tax reform law, they should go after those who are invoking the TRAIN as an excuse for price hikes. It’s not enough to conduct raids or trot out the names of alleged cartel members; penalties must be imposed. Price manipulation will stop only if the offenders are assured of punishment.

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