‘Sobrang out of range:’ Senators grill Dar over reduced taxes on pork imports

Senators turned the heat on against Agriculture Secretary William Dar for recommending that President Rodrigo Duterte increase pork imports with lower tariffs, now the subject of an executive order (EO).

During the Senate committee of the whole hearing on Monday, April 12, Senator Cynthia Villar said it was “out of range” for the Department of Agriculture (DA) to suggest the increase in the minimum access volume (MAV) for pork by 350,000 metric tons (MT), on top of the current MAV of 54,210 MT for 2021.

“Ako, mabait naman ako sa department ko. Pero ‘di ko talaga maintindihan ‘yung computation nyong ‘yun. Sobrang out of range, out of range na ‘di kayo naawa sa ating mga backyard farmers and they are 65% of hog raisers in the Philippines. Kawawa naman sila ‘pag ganito,” said Villar.

(I am usually nice to my department. But I really cannot understand your computation here. It’s so out of range that it seems you do not have any pity on backyard farmers and they comprise 65% of hog raisers in the Philippines. They will suffer in this case.)

Villar – who chairs the Senate committee on agriculture, food, and agrarian reform – was visibly frustrated as she interpellated the DA chief, who barely got a word in as senators grilled him.

Villar cited data from the Bureau of Customs showing that in the past 10 years, the highest demand for pork imports that the country has recorded was only at 120,000 MT in 2018.

Granting that the African Swine Fever outbreak led to the culling of about 25% of the current hog population in the Philippines, Villar said the highest recommendation the DA should have made was an increase up to 150,000 MT only.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon agreed with Villar, saying it was faulty for the DA the recommended more than double of what was realistically the demand for imported pork. 

“The reason we’re asking this question is that we’re concerned we cannot get the proper explanation how this policy decision was arrived at. We could not even agree as to what is the expected deficit on the basis of the past record of the DA,” Drilon said. 

Duterte signed EO No. 128 last week, reducing import taxes on chilled and fresh pork meat to address the supply shortage and soaring prices.

But senators quickly rejected the move, calling it “bad news” for domestic meat products who now have to face more competition while grappling with both the ASF outbreak and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Senate President Vicente “Sotto” III also expressed his frustration with the DA, wondering the logic behind the policy to lower tariffs.

“Gusto ‘nyo dagdagan yung importation. Bakit nyo binababa ‘yung tariff? Aalisin ‘nyo ‘yung kita ng gobyerno? Sa bulsa ang punta niyan,” said Sotto. 

(You want to increase importation. But why lower the tariff? You’re going to remove a source of government revenue? That’s probably going to go to someone’s pockets.)

Senator Francis Pangilinan earlier warned that certain quarters stand to earn kickbacks if the increase in MAV pushes through.

Dar, however, justified the recommendation to increase the number of pork imports since the the demand for pork in 2021 is supposedly at 1.6 million MT. 

“Ang demand, let me start, demand is 1.6 million metric tons, at mayroon tayong reduction now at 25%. So ‘yun po, kung 25% ‘yung reduction na ng hog inventory ay, ano ang 25% ng 1.6 million? Thats 400,000 metric tons. So ang supply natin is local production plus imports. That gives you ‘yung supply the demand na 1.6 million,” said Dar.

(The demand is 1.6 million metric tons and we have a reduction now at 25%. So if there is a 25% reduction in the hog inventory what’s 25% of 1.6 million, what’s 25% of 1.6 million? That’s 400,000 metric tons. So our supply is composed of local production plus imports. That gives you the supply to meet the demand of 1.6 million.)

He also said the DA’s proposal to Duterte went through various levels of discussions and consultations, from stakeholders up to the Cabinet-level Committee on Tariff and Related Matters that eventually made the final recommendation to the President. 

In the same hearing, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson asked Duterte to “recall” EO No. 128, saying it will have a “double-dead” effect on the local hog industry in the Philippines. 

Pork prices posted an inflation rate of over 20% last March, indicating that vendors struggled to comply with the price ceiling set in a separate Duterte EO.

Data from the DA showed that pork prices in Metro Manila hovered between P350 and P380 per kilo, higher than the imposed limit of P270 to P300 per kilo.

Hog raisers also staged a pork holiday to protest Duterte's price cap and the proposal to lower tariffs on imported pork. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.