Thu, 27 Jun 2019

CONTINUOUS RAINS along with typhoons have affected Philippine agricultural and aqua-cultural harvests this year, resulting in lower supplies and higher prices for such basic commodities as rice and fish. To address the problem, the Department of Agriculture (DA) imported these Filipino staples.

But the DA's 330,000 bags of imported rice turned out to be bukbok - or weevil-infested; while the fishers' group, the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) warned that imported galunggong (round scad) could be tainted with formalin, an embalming chemical, to preserve it.

While the media promptly flagged the possible contamination of these basic food items, it did little to examine the issue of accountability.

CMFR monitored the reports on the issue by the newspapers Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Bulletin, and The Philippine Star and their online editions; the online news site Rappler; as well as Cignal's One News from August 25 to September 4.

Edible and safe?

Much of the coverage reported what key persons said about whether the food was edible and safe to eat. In an August 28 explainer of Rappler, Josine Macaspac, entomologist and Global Forum on Agricultural Research awardee, said that weevil-infested rice can be safely consumed provided the infestation is "manageable" and the rice is fumigated and washed. ("EXPLAINER: What is bukbok?")

In an August 25 report, quoted Eduardo Gongona, DA Undersecretary and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) director, as saying that no formalin was found in galunggong from Balintawak Market, Farmer's Market in Cubao and the Navotas Fish Port. ("No formalin in galunggong; importation to proceed")

But Philstar and other media failed to note that the fish sampled were locally-sourced, since the importation of the fish began only on September 1.

Agriculture Secretary Manny Pinol quickly resorted to the publicity stunt of eating bukbok-infested rice and galunggong last August 31. Since the imported fish was scheduled only to arrive on September 1, Pinol was obviously eating local galunggong, an important detail that media did not point out. Nor did media ask any health expert whether continuous consumption of infested, fumigated rice would have long-term damage on a person's health or on vulnerable individuals such as the sick or young children.

As to the issue of rice infestation, media also failed to probe into the accountability of public officials and their agencies. Journalistic inquiry should have asked questions to establish whether the rice was infested from the source or was due to improper storage to review areas of accountability.

"I Will Not Resign"

Media reports gave Pinol ample time to insinuate that the failure was all NFA, but did not sufficiently interrogate his claim.

In the August 30 episode of One News' The Chiefs, Pinol said he will not resign because it would be "answering for the sins of my neighbor." Pinol did not specify what he meant, and apparently, the media did not ask. But reports gave him time to stress that the NFA was not part of his department and that he had no authority over NFA activities. However, according to an April 28 Rappler report, the DA has regained supervision of NFA, the Philippine Coconut Authority, and the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority. ("NFA transferred back to agriculture department")

In the same report, it was explained that these agencies were placed under the office of Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. through Duterte's very first executive order but was now given back to the DA as an "attached agency."

Other current reports missed this, failing to connect crucial dots that would have belied the claim that Pinol had no share of the blame.

CMFR checked further and found that according to the Administrative Code of 1987, "attachment of an agency to a Department is one of the three administrative relationships where a lateral relationship between the Department or its equivalent and the attached agency or corporation exists for purposes of policy and program coordination." The attached agency should also have periodic reporting to its Department, which shall reflect the progress of programs and projects. The Department can also provide general policies through its representative in the board, which shall serve as the framework for the internal policies of the attached corporation or agency. ("Executive Order 292: Instituting the Administrative Code of 1987")

The NFA itself has yet to admit its lapses, despite its responsibility for the importation of weevil-infested rice via the PHP 6.1 billion government-to-government (G2G) scheme, under which the government of the Philippines negotiated the sale with the government of Thailand.

After all, President Duterte himself said that he was not firing anyone on this issue, and that he did not think there was a problem with food shortage.

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