As rice farmers on the Essequibo Coast continue to experience difficulties with their crop, Opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Dharamkumar Seeraj on Thursday took Government to task over the mismanagement of the rice industry, which he said was costing farmers billions in losses.During his contribution to the 2019 Budget debate, Seeraj pointed out that the farmers in Region Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam) have suffered as a result of a drop in yields.Seeraj, who is the Head of the Rice Producers Association (RPA), explained that these farmers lost some 357,000 bags of paddy to pests – a situation that could have been avoided had there still been the specialised unit at the Agriculture Ministry that was set up and equipped to deal with paddy bug infestations.That unit was dissolved in 2015 and as such, the Opposition parliamentarian is blaming the coalition Administration for the losses suffered by the rice farmers.“A specialised unit was established in recognition of the devastating effect and economic impact this particular pest could have on rice. In one season, one Region – just 35,000 acres – lost $1 billion because of the reduction in yields due to that particular pest and a fungal infestation called blast… The impact that is affecting Essequibo farmers right now is machines are being seized, houses are under the threat of being taken back, because they are unable to meet commitments to banking institutions,” he posited.Moreover, Seeraj further outlined that rice farmers in Guyana were facing more hardships owing to the high cost of production, which now has been compounded by increased rates for drainage and irrigation as well as land rentals.He pointed to the fact that farmers were forced to pay increased rental fees for leased lands. That cost, he added, was tripled in some cases.“These are farmers facing low prices and are now being … asked to produce more in an environment when they are getting less when the Government itself is contributing to the increase in cost of production,” Seeraj noted.Despite these difficulties, Seeraj said the farmers were nevertheless paying. In fact, he revealed that the farming section of the rice industry has contributed some $3 billion in taxes from the purchase of fuel.“[The farmers] need to be given support, so they can produce and compete because we are operating in a global environment that is becoming increasingly small and this government doesn’t seem to have an appreciation for that. As the whole world is giving support to agriculture, this government is penalising agriculture by increasing taxes,” he asserted.Furthermore, the Opposition MP stated that the issues in the agriculture sector were happening at a time when farmers were being told to produce more, but the commodity’s value was going down.He outlined that in 2014, some 501,000 tons of rice were exported at a value of US$249.5 million; this was reduced in 2017 to 539,000 tons exported at a value of US$201 million.“That is US$48 million less whilst we exported 38,000 tons more … So, our farmers are being punished for producing more,” he posited.Against this backdrop, Seeraj went on to question Government about the new markets that were promised to rice farmers.He turned his attention to the Panamanian market, which he said was almost in jeopardy earlier this year as a result of the mismanagement of the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB).“The Rice Board purchase from millers, they certified the quality, they do the inspection, they fumigate the containers, they issue the certificates for those containers before they could travel and Customs could give their approval… [and yet still] more than 30 containers of not less-quality rice but a totally different type of rice arrived in Panama and the Panamanians had to send it back,” he stated.However, despite this fiasco, as described by Seeraj, the GRDB on Wednesday announced that Guyana had secured another supply contract with the lucrative Panamanian market for the period December 2018 through 2019.This new deal is worth some US$5.2 million and will see the supply of 200,000 quintals equivalent to 9075 tonnes of white rice over the next few months, with the first shipment set for later this month.“This development comes in the wake of Guyana successfully meeting its quotas in a timely and consistent manner,” the Rice Board said.According to statistics from the GRDB, over the past three years, Guyana has shipped a total of 183,683 metric tonnes of rice to Panama valued at US$77.147 million.Meanwhile, it was noted that exports for January to November 2018 show a value of US$25.856 million when compared to US$19.257 million for the same period in 2017.