Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said agriculture will remain among the top concerns of the Duterte administration for the rest of its term to fulfill its goal of raising farm productivity and rural incomes and avoid a repeat of the supply problems in rice and other major food items that led to the elevated inflation rate in the second half of 2018.

Dominguez recalled that improving agricultural output and raising farmers’ incomes through education and the use of new farm technologies emerged as the No. 1 actionable recommendation of the private sector in the four “Sulong Pilipinas” events held last November, which shows that even the business community recognizes the importance of the farm sector in sustaining the economy’s high growth rate.

“We will focus on agriculture in the coming years. We know that the major reason for the inflation this year has been the logistics problems we have had in agriculture as well as production problems,” Dominguez said in response to a query by businessman George Barcelon during a recent business forum.

Barcelon is the chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), which helped organize in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao last November the four regional workshops of Sulong Pilipinas, the annual consultative meeting with the private sector pioneered by the Duterte administration to gather the inputs and recommendations of the business sector and civil society on how to fulfill the government’s goal of high and inclusive growth.

The government responded swiftly to the elevated inflation rate that rose to 6.4 percent in August and 6.7 percent in September and October through a series of measures recommended by the economic team that are aimed at streamlining procedures for agricultural imports, given that food supply issues were among the main drivers of inflation during these months.

Among these measures was Administrative Order No. 13 signed by President Duterte last Sept. 21 to remove administrative restrictions on the importation of agricultural products.

The President also issued Memorandum Order (MO) 26 directing the Departments of Agriculture (DA) and of Trade and Industry (DTI) to implement measures to reduce the gap between the farmgate and retail prices of agricultural products.

MO 27, meanwhile, ordered the DA, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Philippine National Police (PNP), and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to “adopt measures to ensure the efficient and seamless delivery” of imported agricultural and fishery products from ports to markets, while MO 28 directed the National Food Authority (NFA) to immediately release existing rice stocks in its warehouses.

The directives issued by the President form part of the measures unveiled in early September by the Economic Development Cluster (EDC) of the Cabinet to help rein in inflation.

The other measures included the DTI, NFA, PNP, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and farmers’ groups forming monitoring teams to closely watch over the transport of rice from ports to NFA warehouses and retail outlets; the DA replicating the issuance of certificates of necessity to allow fish imports to be distributed in Metro Manila’s wet markets and other markets of the country; reducing the gap between the farmgate and retail prices of chicken by setting up public markets where producers can sell directly to consumers; the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) opening sugar imports to direct users; and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) prioritizing the release of essential food items in the ports.

With government measures in place and oil prices falling in the global market, the inflation rate in November eased to 6.0 percent and is expected to continue to decline in the coming months.

When inflation spiked to 6.4 percent in August, Dominguez said the increase in crude oil prices by 50 percent, the adjustments to the normalization of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve, global trade tensions, and food supply issues caused by weather-related events, have all contributed to the elevated inflation.

To some extent, rising demand as a result of more jobs created and lower income tax rates for individual taxpayers also became an inflation driver, he said.

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