By Stephanie Sevillano

UNHAMPERED BUYING. Agriculture Assistant Secretary Arnel de Mesa assures unhampered buying of rice buffer stock despite the ongoing probe in the National Food Authority (NFA), in an ambush interview on Wednesday (March 20, 2024). The NFA needs to secure 300,000 metric tons of rice buffer stock for the year. (Screengrab)

MANILA – The Department of Agriculture (DA) said Wednesday the majority of the warehouses of the National Food Authority (NFA) are still operating despite an ongoing investigation into the alleged improper sale of rice buffer stock.

In an ambush interview on the sidelines of the Kapihan sa Manila Bay briefing, Agriculture Assistant Secretary Arnel de Mesa reiterated the Office of the Ombudsman’s preventive suspension order against 141 NFA officials and employees entails temporary closure of select warehouses.

The first batch of suspension included 99 warehouse supervisors nationwide.

“There are 288 warehouses sa buong Pilipinas, at 169 iyong regular na nag-o-open tapos madagdagan pa ng 20 (in the entire Philippines, and 169 are open regularly, and 20 more shall be added),” De Mesa said.

“And hopefully iyong utos din ni Secretary (Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr.) doon sa mayroon pang sarado na mabuksan agad, at mapalitan iyong mga bodegero na na-suspend. Iyon iyong mga parte ng utos ni Secretary kay NFA OIC Administrator (Larry) Lacson (the order of Secretary on the locked [warehouses] should be immediately reopened, and replace the suspended warehouse supervisor. That’s a part of Secretary’s instructions to Administrator Lacson),” he added.

For his part, Lacson vowed to keep the NFA operations rolling despite the ongoing investigation.

“Ako po (I) as an OIC, I’ll just do iyong day-to-day, kailangan ibangon ko lang iyong NFA. At makapag-operate nang maayos. Kaya unti-unti bumabalik kami sa operasyon (I just need to restore the NFA so we could operate properly. That’s why we’re slowly getting back in operations),” he said in a separate interview at Radyo Pilipinas.

He added that he will leave the investigation up to authorities as the NFA focuses on securing rice buffer stock for the year.

The legal counsel of 108 NFA suspended employees, meanwhile, called for a swift investigation considering its negative effects on “honest government employees.”

“I think it’s unjust. Why? Because a lot of these people are actually just doing their ministerial duties,” Lawyer Dino de Leon said.

De Leon argued that a shotgun approach shouldn’t be used since nominal employees are left with no choice but to adhere to orders from higher-ups.

“For example, you are a warehouse supervisor, hindi naman pwedeng hindi mo susundin iyong paglabas ng palay. Hindi rin pwedeng sabihin na legal ba iyan? Kukwestyunin mo iyong actions ng higher management. (You cannot disobey disposition orders for palays. You cannot ask, is it legal? Nor question the actions of higher management),” he said.

“In other words, kung hindi mo ni-release, insubordination ka. Kapag nilabas mo, sasabihin dawit ka (if you’ll not release it, that’s insubordination. If you release it, you’ll get implicated),” De Leon added.

The DA earlier expressed hopes to bring more suspended NFA employees back to work, if proven innocent.

The Office of the Ombudsman took back the six-month preventive suspension order against 23 warehouse supervisors and one branch manager in Batangas after its investigators found erroneous data on the list provided by the DA, which was sourced from the NFA.

Unhampered buying

De Mesa, meanwhile, said the NFA has a PHP17.2 billion budget to purchase 300,000 metric tons of buffer stock for 2024.

“Iyong NFA kasi, kahit may mga sarado (na warehouse), sinisigurado ni Administrator Lacson na maraming truck na may mga umiikot (Even if some NFA warehouses are closed, Administrator Lacson is ensuring that many trucks are going around),” he said.

Lacson, however, noted that buying palay remains challenging during the peak harvest season, considering the high buying price of local traders.

“Ang buying price natin ay PHP23 clean and dry, PHP19 ang wet. So, marami ho diyan, mahigit PHP25 pa ang palay (Our buying price is at PHP23 for clean and dry, PHP19 for wet. Many of [the traders], have over PHP25 [buying price] for palay),” he said.

Lacson said farmers are very much welcome to sell their palay to NFA warehouses nationwide, in case, some traders are taking advantage of them.

To date, the DA expects around 9.6 million metric tons of harvest for the peak harvest from March to April. (PNA)