Choked by cartels

“But official investigations have shown food cartels are using cooperatives as convenient covers to freely import rice even when local rice supplies are abundant.

“My god, we should not be paralyzed,” blurted a visibly incensed Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Juan Ponce Enrile over the weekend on how an alleged onion cartel queen managed so far to evade jail.

Clearly disparaging his fellow functionaries, Mr. Enrile says he couldn’t comprehend why it was difficult to do anything against a publicly identified onion cartel architect when all that was needed to incapacitate her was to cancel the “business license of Lilia Cruz and never issue a permit for her to do business in the country.”

Livid though was Mr. Enrile, it remained unclear if his weekend tirade effectively moved shameless functionaries into action.

Implicit, however, in Mr. Enrile’s harangue is the encysted public opinion that things are more or less as they look: bureaucrats are in the deep pockets of food cartels.

Such long-standing harsh public suspicion is entirely reasonable. Food cartels won’t be widely as successful in making government inutile without complicit government bureaucrats in charge of food security.

Still, corrupting bureaucrats are but one of the myriad practices with which wily food cartels fix high food prices we harassed Filipino consumers are often forced to pay.

As such, effectively dismantling food cartels goes beyond lambasting corrupt bureaucrats aiding smugglers servicing food cartels.

True, with our country not producing enough of our essential foodstuffs — like rice, onions, sugar, and whatever else — smuggling is a lucrative business and a corruption magnet.

But food cartels have other schemes going on besides corrupting officials.

In fact, smuggling can be a convenient scapegoat. An effective ruse masking the tentacles of food cartels are spreading far and wide over the country’s agricultural sector.

As such, much more has to be done than Finance boss Benjamin Diokno’s drastic plan to altogether shut out shadowy food cartels from the business of importing foodstuffs, legitimate or smuggled.

This is because, as one observer notes, “food cartels have a whole logistic infrastructure and market-making role” that the government has mysteriously ignored.

Such bald-faced government neglect of such infrastructures in agriculture, for instance, has allowed food cartels almost complete control of cold storage facilities which farmers need.

Giving farmers access to cold storage facilities allows for stable foodstuff prices and balances supply and demand constraints at the same time.

But the reality on the ground has it that many farmers are unable to get storage access, even if they are legitimate members of farmers’ cooperatives which are supposed to guarantee such cold storage facilities.

As detailed recently by an observer about onion farming in Nueva Ecija, a farmer’s own “onion cooperative, controlled by a chairman and a Board linked with the food cartels, has locked him out. He is told, capacity is unavailable or too expensive. This forces the farmer to sell his produce in the open market to the cartel traders at low prices.”

Clearly, the government is failing at doing anything substantial against this atrocious cold storage system which has long victimized farmers.

Another notorious food cartel modus is supposedly their capture of import licenses of essential foodstuffs, especially rice.

On the surface, large volumes of rice are supposedly imported by farmers’ cooperatives.

But official investigations have shown food cartels are using cooperatives as convenient covers to freely import rice even when local rice supplies are abundant.

Still, another food cartel modus is by going directly to the poor farmer.

Agriculture experts say it is common practice for food cartels to advance loans to farmers for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and small farm implements to dictate how much farmers can sell their produce.

Now all these deep-rooted, ongoing food cartel schemes for further maximizing profits have only but one definite challenge — the complete overhaul of this country’s abused agri-business structures and practices.

Overhauling is the only way this government proves it is doing all it can to help farmers and consumers alike.

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