Pricey onions and neglected farms

By: Cielito F. Habito - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | December 13,2022 - 09:15 AM

Former senator Kiko Pangilinan hit the news recently when he tweeted on prices he witnessed in Thailand in late September. “Last week sa Bangkok, 50 baht o 85 pesos 1 kilo ng bawang (garlic). 35 baht o 60 pesos naman ang 1 kilo sibuyas (onions). Dito sa atin (here at home) 400 pesos 1 kilo ng sibuyas at 300 pesos naman ang bawang… Murang pagkain (cheap food). Walang gutom (no one is hungry).”

Over a week ago, I was in Jakarta, Indonesia, for official functions, and took time from my hectic schedule to visit the nearest supermarket with one objective: check the prices of common farm products. Of particular interest were onions. Even in the “high-end” supermarket I visited, onions sold at 35,900 Indonesian rupiah per kilo, or about P130. A few days ago, local red onions in the Robinsons supermarket in Los Baños (no white onions were in sight) sold for P425 per kilo; last week it was P375. Potatoes in Jakarta were 27,900 rupiah per kilo, or about P100; the Robinsons price was P250. Eggplant was 33,900 rupiah or P122 per kilo; here it’s P225. Iceberg lettuce was 65,900 rupiah or P238 a kilo; here it’s P445. I could keep going (and I have photos to show for it).

A meme going around social media compares median monthly salaries and prices of food commodities in the Philippines and in the United Kingdom. That table shows UK prices of P32.76 per kilo for onions, P34.70 per kilo for potatoes (even lower than in Thailand and Indonesia!). I will not repeat the other numbers here, but comparisons for other basic commodities showed that UK prices also tended to be much lower than ours, with the exception of canned sardines and pork steak. And yet the UK median monthly salary is supposedly equivalent to P138,319, vs only P48,308 in the Philippines.

The message is obvious. Food is much more expensive here in the Philippines than in our Southeast Asian neighbors, and even in a rich country like the UK. Yet, our average incomes are also lower—a double blow to our average consumer. Think about what this means for the common Filipino family and for the Filipino poor. No wonder malnutrition here is so high, especially in young children who will grow up damaged for life with much lower mental and physical capacities. This underlying condition of high food production costs translating to high prices has been the factor often traditionally missed by public health and nutrition analysts, who tend to focus on inadequate nutrition interventions. But the problem is more deeply rooted in our government’s failure to help farmers become as productive and cost-efficient as their counterparts elsewhere.

“Kawawa naman ang Pinoy” (pity the Filipinos), we often hear. One can’t avoid asking how we got into this sorry state. Why has Philippine agriculture been so messed up that our people must now face undue food insecurity and all its consequences that will extend long into our future?

What we have is a massive failure in the governance of our agricultural sector over so many years. Some trace it to the way we allowed the fragmentation of our farms into uneconomic sizes, with agrarian reform seen as the culprit. Add to that the failure to make financing accessible to our small farmers, weak research and extension support, and more. But Thailand and Vietnam have similarly small average farm sizes but have shown that this need not be a hurdle to achieving a dynamic agriculture and agribusiness sector.

I have long argued that our problem is rooted in the traditional belief that the way to help our farmers is to “protect” them from foreign competition, rather than support them so that foreign competition is not a threat (and smuggling is pointless) because our costs can match theirs. That’s clearly the case in Thailand and Indonesia now.

Moving forward, we must open up, not because we love and prefer imports and want to kill our farmers—but because we need the discipline of the market to force government to help producers finally shape up and attain true strength. We must stop the failed and misguided policy of “protecting” several million farmers at great collateral damage to 110 million consumers who, in the end, include farmers themselves.

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TAGS: average incomes, Cebu Daily News, cebu news, food, Indonesia, malnutrition, onions, pricey onions, Thailand, Vietnam

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