Eye-watering Philippine onion prices put farmers, whole nation in a stew

A vendor shows off bouquets featuring onions, instead of flowers, in this photo taken on Feb. 10. Prices of onions surged in recent months amid supply shortages. — PHILIPPINE STAR/EDD GUMBAN

By Sheldeen Joy Talavera

AUGUST O. LUCAS, 38, traveled more than 700 kilometers for 16 hours from his hometown of Aliaga in Nueva Ecija province north of the Philippine capital to Matnog, Sorsogon southward so he could sell his onions to traders at P25 ($0.46) a kilo more.

He earned P100,000 after selling 5,000 kilos of the vegetable at P90 a kilo in February. That wasn’t too much, considering that onions were being sold to Filipino consumers at as much as P700 a kilo in December.

Each Filipino eats an average of 2.58 kilos of onions — a staple ingredient in Philippine cooking — in 2020, a quarter more than in the previous year, according to the Helgi Library website, citing data from the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Record prices of onion, sugar and other commodities in the Philippines show the increasingly delicate crop supply problems as stagnating yield, lower soil quality and extreme weather alter their supply patterns, according to Henry Chan, an internationally recognized development economist based in Singapore.

“At the same time, food product demands continue to grow in the face of a rising population, wealth and consumption,” he wrote in a Manila Times column last month. “The resulting supply-demand imbalance is becoming structural for many food products under the status quo.”

Mr. Lucas said he and his fellow farmers never benefited from skyrocketing prices that have since gone down to a little more than P100 a kilo after the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. imported 1,900 metric tons (MT) of red onions at the end of January.

Mr. Marcos approved imports of as many as 21,060 MT, but only 5,000 MT were cleared, while only 1,900 MT eventually arrived in the country.

The farming sector has blamed the Agriculture department for failing to make accurate supply estimates and resisting imports even as farmers warned of rising demand during last year’s holiday season. Agriculture officials also suspected internal price manipulations for skyrocketing onion prices.

Global inflation due to the Russia-Ukraine war, supply chain issues and extreme weather events have also put a strain on food prices everywhere.

“We heard that the government wanted to protect local farmers like me, so they limited the imports,” Mr. Lucas said by telephone in Filipino. “It would have helped us more if onions were not imported at all,” he added, noting that these arrived just as the local harvest season was about to start.

He planted -— and harvested — 260 bags of onions from a land he had rented from the neighboring town of Sto. Rosario in the province that’s known as the “rice granary of the Philippines” because his one-hectare farmland has been under mortgage for a year.

“We take risks because we invest the capital even though the gains from our harvest are never guaranteed,” Mr. Lucas said.

He lamented that farmers have been at the mercy of “abusive traders” who scare them into selling their produce at lower prices because these supposedly have lost value with impending imports.

In February, a Department of Agriculture task force against price gouging conducted surprise inspections in Metro Manila markets, giving notices of violation against stalls that sold onions beyond the suggested retail price.

“Rest assured that the department will bolster its effort in curbing price manipulation and other market abuses,” Agriculture Assistant Secretary James I. Layug said at that time.

James B. Ramos, who manages the Facebook page Onion Farmers Philippines, said they’ve had a good harvest this year compared with last year, but few farmers planted onions due to increased costs.

Farmers had sought a small amount of state subsidy to help ease their rising input expenses, including on seedlings and fertilizers, he said in a Facebook Messenger call.

Mr. Ramos, 54, spent as much as P220,000 to plant onions in an eight-hectare farmland in Pangasinan, the gateway to rice-producing provinces on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.

The process of taking onions from farm to market is a long one and involves a lot of effort and expenses, he said as a matter of fact, not a lot different from how a popular Filipino folk song recounts the struggles of farmers — how they must twist and bend to plant rice in the muddy paddies all day, with no chance to sit or stand.

Mr. Ramos, who helped his father plant onions when he was just 14, said the land must first be tilled before planting. After the harvest, the onions are sold to traders who cure these for as long as three weeks until their tops and necks are completely dry and their outer bulb scales begin to rustle. The vegetables are then sorted and repacked so they can be sold in the market.

COLD STORAGEPart of the problem is the lack of cold storage facilities for onions, Mr. Lucas said, noting that the vegetables need to be stored in a cool, dry and well-ventilated area to prolong their shelf life.

Onions can be stored in cold storage up to 10 months without deterioration.

The Agriculture department earlier said that it had allotted more than P300 million to build cold storage facilities for onions in the provinces of Bataan, Nueva Ecija, Occidental Mindoro, Pangasinan and Nueva Vizcaya, seedlings and other farm inputs.

Another crop that has been a cause for concern in the Philippines recently is sugar, after production for the 2022-2023 crop year hit only 1.88 million MT, falling short of the projected 2.03 million MT demand.

In October, the average retail price of refined sugar doubled to P134 a kilo amid supply issues.

Inflation hit 8.1% in December as food prices continued to rise. Inflation for sugar confectionery and desserts was 38.8%, according to data from local statistics agency.

Earlier this year, the president, who also sits as the country’s Agriculture chief, ordered agencies to keep a two-month buffer stock for sugar to deter speculators who have been blamed for volatile prices.

The Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) approved imports for 440,000 MT of refined sugar that took effect on Feb. 18.

Sugar imports are supposed to come in three tranches — the first tranche of 100,000 MT was scheduled to arrive “as soon as possible,” the other 100,000 MT was cleared for arrival starting April 1 and the rest will be kept as reserve sugar.

Local sugar planters have warned that the volume and timing of imports would hurt their income during the milling season.

Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel has flagged “super profits” in a “government-sponsored smuggling” of 260 containers of sugar that entered the country without permits and before an import order was issued by the sugar agency.

Authorities were aware that the sugar shipments arrived way before March 1, the earliest date legally imported sugar could reach Philippine ports, she said.

Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo F. Panganiban has said he had handpicked three traders with a proven track record after he interpreted a memo from the Office of the Executive Secretary to mean that imports were authorized.

Agriculture Deputy Spokesman Rex C. Estoperez earlier said the agency was focusing on bringing down sugar prices.

“The objective is to bring down the price of sugar. That is what matters, nothing else,” he told a news briefing on March 13.

Mr. Marcos during his presidential campaign last year vowed to revitalize the agriculture sector to attain food security and cut import reliance.

“We would have nothing to eat if there were no farmers,” Mr. Ramos, the onion farmer, said. “Governments in other countries take care of their farmers. We should too.”