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Opinion

Chief nemesis of food security

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Despite being deep into their respective campaign schedules, Senators running in the May 9 national and local elections attended last Monday the resumption of their public hearing on the rampant smuggling of agricultural products dumped in our country. The members of the 18th Congress are still in recess during the official 90-day campaign period.

Taking time out from their out-of-town campaign sorties, were Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Senators Panfilo Lacson, and, Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan. Also in attendance were Senate minority leader Sen.Franklin Drilon, Senators Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and Cynthia Villar who is the chairperson of the Senate committee on agriculture.

Lacson is one of the ten presidential candidates. On the other hand, Sotto and Pangilinan are two of the nine candidates vying to become the next vice president (VP) of the country.

Convening the Senate Committee of the Whole, Sotto sought last year an inquiry in aid of legislation into the issues on how these smuggling of agricultural crops proliferate through these years under the very noses of many government authorities supposedly guarding the gates. The first public hearing was held last Dec.14. However, the resumption of the Senate inquiry got sidetracked following the outbreak of the Omicron variant.

In the line of fire on these allegations are the usual suspects at the Bureau of Customs (BOC). Attached under the Department of Finance, the personnel of the BOC are primarily tasked to closely guard and monitor against illegal entry of imported crops and other products supposedly under their watch.

But aside from the BOC, there are also the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) which mandated to protect the Filipino farmers, fisher folks as well as the rest of local producers and manufacturers against undue and unfair competition from agricultural crops sourced from abroad and foreign-made products.

To the exasperation of the lawmakers, the representatives of these government agencies during the hybrid public hearing of the Senate insisted they have been doing their jobs to stop smuggling activities within their respective areas of jurisdiction. But the realities on the ground have shown differently.

Under oath, Agriculture Assistant Secretary Federico Laciste confirmed having told Benguet farmers in a dialogue on March 15 about certain high-profile individuals who were involved in the smuggling cases of agricultural goods. Grilled by Sotto, Laciste admitted: “Yes, Mr. President. I mentioned individuals who were involved in the smuggling cases in 2021. There were some who called me then including big-time personalities. But we pushed through with the operation and the filing of cases.”

So where are these cases, if indeed pursued? Is anyone jailed already?

Laciste’s testimony before the Senate Committee of the Whole merely validated what Benguet Province Board Member Robert Namoro swore earlier on alleged corruption activities “like in the Bureau of Customs and the DA.” Pressed to name names, Laciste refused to reveal them in a public hearing. Laciste merely described those allegedly involved in the smuggling activities as former officials. He asked for a closed-door executive session with the Senators but this was declined. Instead, Sotto asked him to submit the names on paper under the same oath.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar, in a subsequent official statement, condemned the continuing smuggling activities involving agricultural goods. “As the Secretary of Agriculture, I condemn in the strongest terms the smuggling and illegal entry of all agricultural, fishery and meat products into the country – as these compete directly with our local farmers, fishers and food producers, depriving them of a much-needed livelihood and incomes,” Dar said. “Secondly, they pose danger as smuggled products may carry trans-boundary pests and diseases that could harm our agriculture, fishery and animal industry, in general. More importantly, they could pose danger to human health,” Dar warned.

It was unfortunate that Dar came into office at the height of other serious problems that have brought down the country’s agriculture output to its lowest levels. There was the African swine flu that decimated our local hog-raising industry and the avian flu still affecting the poultry raisers here. To his credit, Dar averted crisis proportion problems but turned to quick fix solutions like importation.

In our weekly virtual chat among Tuesday Club members, former Bulacan Governor Roberto “Obet” Pagdanganan blamed these “quick-fix” solutions as having worsened the agricultural crops smuggling in our country. Pagdanganan, in particular, lamented the economic consequences of too much importation.

Our subsistence farmers and fisher folks, he noted, were being forced to rely upon “ayuda” or financial subsidy from the government. Now, even galunggong (scad) or the so-called “poor man’s fish” that abound the seas and oceans of our archipelagic country are now being imported, he rued.

Coming from an agriculture-based province like Bulacan, Pagdanganan knows very well this sector of the economy. He also once served as Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary during the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

He deplored reports that Benguet farmers were losing as much as P2.5 million a day due to smuggled vegetables that are mostly treated with formalin to keep them fresh. Shown in TV news footages were Benguet-produced crops like carrots, onions, potatoes getting rotten and are just dumped in garbage pits because they could not get a good price for their produce.

“I hope the next President of our country could address the needs of our farmers,” Pagdanganan quipped.

It is without a doubt corruption in the smuggling of agriculture crops is as deeply rooted as the illicit drugs trade in our country. Our country’s food security will remain in peril with agricultural crops smugglers as chief nemesis who flood our markets with their lucrative trade of importing deadly chemically treated vegetable products.

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