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On allowing sugar imports: The debate gets heated

Majority Floor Leader Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri called on the DA to make efforts to halt the impending opening up of the domestic sugar industry to trade.

Maria Romero

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A lawmaker opposed to the proposed liberalization of the country’s sugar industry scored the Department of Agriculture (DA) for its “deafening silence” on the measure, authored by the country’s economic team.

The measure seeks to allow the unrestricted import of sugar to the Philippines.

During the continuation of the Senate Hearing on its proposed National Expenditure Program for 2020, Majority Floor Leader Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri called on the DA to make efforts to halt the impending opening up of the domestic sugar industry to trade.

“You know what’s deafening? The DA’s silence on this issue. The DA remains silent on this proposed liberalization. I want you to tell the DoF that we are not yet ready for the sugar liberalization,” Zubiri told Secretary William Dar Secretary Dar.

“The DA should come out strongly against imports. I don’t think any senator here will agree to a collapse in any of our agriculture industries.”

Secretary Dar, however, continued his noncommittal stance in protecting local sugar farmers against the scheme.

“We had a board meeting last Monday and we asked the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) to outline the pros and cons of the sugar liberalization and the board will deliberate it,” Dar said.

“We will be coming out with a report, but I would like the farmers to be protected as well. This is a matter of policy and we will tackle this with the board,”

Dar added they will soon respond to the reasons lawmakers and sugar stakeholders are actively opposing the proposal of the DoF.

When pressed to take a stand on the planned liberalization, Dar said they will have their position on the issue “in due time.”

“(Since day one,) I have been given the brief to alleviate the industry. We are trying to correct those (laws) that are not implemented yet,” he explained.

While heated debates are ongoing over the impact of rice liberalization to farmers, the Department of Finance (DoF) has proposed a similar course on sugar. The finance agency said sugar liberalization would allow entry for up to 400,000 metric tons (MT) of imported sugar.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III had explained that it would lower the prices of sugar as it would augment the annual domestic supply since local supply.

The proposal was met with resistance from sugar industry stakeholders and lawmakers.

Sugar farmers in Luzon joined the fray in putting pressure on the DA and Sugar Regulatory Board to protect the sugar industry and prevent the planned import liberalization announced by the economic managers.

Former SRA Board Member Lito Sandoval did not mince words in criticizing SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica who earlier said his stand was for the farmers though he reiterated that he will be taking his “guidance” from Dar.

“What guidance does Serafica need? Isn’t it clear to him yet that any import liberalization program will be disastrous to the industry? Is he now telling us that he does not know what he is doing?” Sandoval said.

He added that it would not take that much to understand that uncontrolled importation will kill and destroy the lives of millions of Filipinos who depend on the sugar industry.

Last week, at least 24 members of the House of Representatives signed House Resolution 412 opposing the planned liberalization of the domestic sugar industry.

Senator Cynthia Villar, for her part, said that while she opposes the proposal, she stressed that the government must approach sugar liberalization carefully.

The SRA recently reported that the average retail price of raw sugar as of 24 September is P49.65 per kilogram; P56.61 per kilo of refined sugar, and P52.07 per kilo of washed sugar.

For the cropping year 2019 to 2020, the government is expecting local sugar production to reach 2.096 million metric tons.

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