NATIONAL FOOD AUTHORITY: RICE ON EVERY PLATE
MANILA, February 7, 2004 (STAR) By Matthew T. Estabillo - A day in the life of a National Food Authority (nfa) administrator revolves around upcoming reports of the harvest seasons and which grain-producing farm in the country to visit next. It also involves making sure that the price of rice is at an affordable level, distribution channels are on track and, more importantly, trying hard not to crack under the pressure of stress and paperwork.
No wonder the man who currently holds the position doesn’t enjoy it one bit.
Arthur Yap says that there are two ways to describe 24 hours in the post: busy and busier. He is obviously stressed but somehow looks composed, neat with his close cropped hair and a blue NFA jacket over his long-sleeved shirt, always quick with a warm smile and a handshake. Only the constant ringing of his mobile phone and the stacks of paper on his desk give a hint of the scope of the job.
"I almost have a non-existent family and social life. I sometimes don‘t see my wife and kids for several months and I feel like I haven’t slept in a long time. I’ll be glad when I leave this office," he admits as he rejects another call on his cellphone. "I‘m burned out and yet I have to ensure that everyone will still be able to afford rice tomorrow. So if anybody out there thinks that I’m enjoying this, they better think again. It’s not a glamorous job."
But perhaps the most ironic thing about his protestation is that he is actually doing very well on the job. Although Yap has only held the position for a year, the inventory of rice seems to be sufficient and the prices stable. That is a major achievement for an organization which only months ago was riddled with high costs, alleged corruption and other administrative problems.
Many thought that the Iraq war and the July 27, 2003 mutiny would compound the problem even further, but the NFA came out okay–even in the months of zero rice production.
"The situation of the department and the price of rice are very stable. This despite the two crises that hit us last year. That‘s because maaga ang preparations namin. Just in case hindi maging sapat yung local production, we already knew how much to import from abroad," Yap says.
Since its inception in 1972 under the name National Grains Authority, its operation was to promote the integrated growth and development of the industry covering rice, corn, and other grains like sorghum, mongo, and peanut. It became the NFA in 1981 to widen its commodity coverage to include other non-grain commodities and items like fresh, manufactured, and processed food products.
"We are vested with regulatory powers over the grains industry and tasked with implementing the government’s food security program, but the clearest mandates of the NFA are to buy palay from farmers at a support price if needed, and to guarantee its smooth distribution. That‘s what we‘ve done so far," he reports.
And good thing too, because Filipinos consume more rice than they produce. About 528,000 bags of rice are needed daily for the entire country and 15 percent of that is centered at the National Capital Region alone. On a yearly basis, the Philippines needs 9.6 million metric tons of ready rice but its production is only around 8.5 million. This is why the government still imports.
This is also why Arthur Yap is very keen to convert about a quarter of the four million hectares in the country used for rice production into making hybrid rice "to increase the yield variations".
"Clearly, meron tayong one million metric tons na kulang. But we are actually closer to self-sufficiency than people think. And hybrid rice could be the road to it. I computed that if the conversion of one million hectares of land for such a product is implemented, sarado ang gap natin by 2005," he says.
"Another sad thing is that we cannot export rice because under the law, there must be a declared state of national rice self-sufficiency before we can export. I‘ve been asking that they remove that provision to benefit the farmers."
Indeed Arthur‘s ideas to perk up the rice industry are remarkable and his foresight is still upright and comprehensible.
The eldest of three children, Arthur Yap had a regular childhood –spending high school at Xavier, always very busy with sports and extra-curricular activities. He was not the geek who harvested all the academic medals, but his grades were still clearly above average. He finished management economics and law at the Ateneo de Manila University and then readied himself to plunge into the world of law firms and businesses in the private sector.
"I come from a Tsinoy family with a business background so it is normal for me to love wheeling and dealing as a kid. We talked about business during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I never even expected to practice law, let alone work for the government," he laughs.
Arthur was engaged in the family paint and real estate business and had worked for several law firms when he met President Arroyo in 2001. She was his professor in college and it seems that he impressed her enough that she asked him to become chief executive officer of the Philippine International Trading Corporation (pitc).
The pitc, an agency that assists small exporters, was losing money at the time–up to some P30 million at one point. And as chief, Yap was able to turn the cash-strapped state corporation into one that reaped P20 million in profits.
"It (pitc) was almost in shambles when I took over, but when I left it we were already registering big profits," he says with justifiable pride.
In one of his last months at the agency, Arthur decided to travel to Hong Kong to try and convince companies to buy Philippine products. And it was an experience he would never forget.
"In July 2002, naglako ako ng products natin doon. I carried two boxes of mangoes in the rain and went over to Park & Shop, one of the leading supermarkets there. I told them, ‘Go ahead, taste our mango’‚ and they probably thought I was a snotty guy or something. But they did try it and last month, I got confirmation that the local agency just sold five container vans of mangoes to Park & Shop. It‘s a great feeling. Too bad I wasn’t part of it anymore," he shakes his head. I really did not want to leave pitc, to tell you the truth," he confesses. "I was on a roll, I was doing well and I was happy with my job. We were going around the region, going abroad, selling our products. And what‘s great about it is that it was not a very high-profile job that everybody would be taking potshots at me, yet it had a big impact on exporters."
And so when Arthur replaced former classmate Anthony Abad as nfa administrator, he hesitated just a little and then quickly went to work. It was not an easy introduction to the job.
"I came in during the harvest season. The lean period was over and we registered very high prices of rice. It went as high as P26 to P28 in the commercial points. I really lost a lot of weight over the next four months," he says.
Not only was the nfa having problems with its budget and production, there were also allegations of graft and corruption in his office. There were inquiries into the importation of alleged substandard rice from India, and rumors about him scheming with First Gentleman Mike Arroyo to "corner the nfa‘s rice import transactions."
Fortunately it all died down and he was able prove his detractors wrong. In just a few months in office, the prices of rice steadily declined. The procurement program benefitted a lot because on top of the support price, the NFA granted 50 centavos to an accredited farmer organization for every kilo of grain that was collectively delivered.
"I had to go around the country to see the rice farms and I had to defend our budget to Congress. But that‘s time and money well-spent because the average price of rice right now is about P21 a kilo. That‘s a far cry from last year. And I know many people will scoff at the thought, but we are actually okay in rice production despite our deficit. We are now about 92 percent self-sufficient," he declares.
"People think I‘m having the time of my life but they don‘t have any idea how hard it is to be on top of these things. After all this, I‘m certainly going back to the private sector. I‘ll go back to law practice and business because that‘s what I do in the first place."
On the positive side of the job ledger, he claims that he "likes the challenges" and how it "helps people". His main concern right now is that the distribution of rice is intact for the next harvest season. Privatization is not an option because private investors will "never put up a support price or release rice in times of emergency". He also believes that "agribusiness" is the future and that is what he would like to focus on next.
"Government service definitely opened my eyes to the vast riches of our country. I think our mango is the best in the world. There is a global market that we can conquer with our products, and agribusiness is the way to go," he says.
At the end of each day there is only one thing that interests people: Is there rice to eat? "I can beat around the bush in my reports. I can tell you so many beautiful tales and I can show you all our modernization projects, but the bottomline is if there’s rice on every plate. That‘s all you need to know. The benchmark is unforgiving," he says.
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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