Gintong sibuyas!” Ate Mayeth exclaimed when asked about the rising prices of onions in the past months. 

In the urban poor community where Ate Mayeth lives, the price of onion has more than doubled from what it’s worth. “Laki ng diperensya kumpara noon dahil sa sampung piso, makakabili ka na ng dalawang malaking sibuyas. Ngayon, sampung piso ang isang napakaliit na sibuyas na may dahon. Siyempre, hindi ka makaluto nang maayos, kulang sa lasa. Minsan, mas mahal pa ang sahog sa biniling karne,” she remarked heartily as she carries her newborn daughter in her arms. Barely surviving as a housewife and mother to four children, Ate Mayeth complains that every necessity has surged up its prices. “Gipit ka na, lalo ka pang magigipit.”

(Translation: There’s a vast difference between then and now. The 10 peso that you used to buy two large onions with can now only afford a very small one. You can’t cook properly as it lacks taste. Sometimes, they are even more expensive than meat.)

(Translation: It has made our already bad situation even worse.)

Since December 2022, onion prices have soared way above the world average, even surpassing the price of meat and the daily minimum wage. In Metro Manila such as where Ate Mayeth resides, prices have inflated up to P500 to P700 (around 9-12 USD) for a kilogram of onion. It even got as high as P800/kilo (14 USD), recounts vegetable sidewalk vendor aling Baby. “Nanibago kami, wala kaming sibuyas e yun lang naman nakakadagdag sa benta namin. Yun ang hinahanap sa’min,” she added. She has decided to stop selling onions ever since. On one hand, Aling Baby expresses her understanding of the price surge. Amid a global economic crisis after a pandemic, she justifies that prices of goods will naturally tend to go up as the price of gas increases. “Makikisama ka na lang sa mahal ng gasolina..magtiis na lang nang walang sibuyas,” Aling Baby consoles herself, reminiscent of Senator Cynthia Villar’s most recent statement ‘Huwag na lang tayong kumain ng onion’. It is rather dreadful to recognize how these statements sound so similar and yet so far removed from each other when you realize how the latter reeks of privilege and choice, while the former was a forced statement for survival, a matter of life and death.

(Translation: We are not used to it. We usually get extra income from our sales of onion. People usually get their onion from us. To cope with rising fuel prices, we just have to get by without onion.)

(Translation: Let’s just not eat onions.)

It is a tangled web of myriad reasons, really. The Senate committee hearing on agriculture from which Senator Villar uttered those very words was conducting an investigation on Food Terminal Inc. of the National Food Authority for buying P140 million (2.6 million USD) worth of onions from Bonena Multipurpose Cooperative at P537/kilo (10 USD/kilo). It is a controversial move indeed since farmgate prices of onion (the value our local farmers get from their products) can go as low as P210 to P250/kilo (4-5 USD/kilo). These golden onions are now being sold at Kadiwa stores for P170/kilo (3 USD/kilo).

Price manipulation run by a cartel?

Contrary to Aling Baby, Ate Mayeth appears to be more confused by the price surge. “Ang hirap na unawain kung bakit tumataas dahil pinakikita sa TV na meron namang stock ng sibuyas, bigas, asukal. Bakit naho-hoard? Bakit hindi nabebenta nang maayos? Bakit mataas?”

(We can’t find the price increases reasonable as TV reports show that there seem to be enough supply of onion, rice, and sugar. Is somebody hoarding them? Why don’t they sell them? Why are the prices very high?)

It seems that many others share her frustration. Last January 13, the Bureau of Customs (BoC) seized P197 million worth of smuggled fresh white onions from China. The agency is set to destroy these onions amid an onion ‘shortage’ just because the crops “did not undergo the necessary inspections” for consumer health and safety, much to the disappointment of netizens by either the severe incompetency or sheer deception in the face of a worsening crisis. One may also wonder about the 2.5 billion peso food safety program launched by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) back in 2021 to develop food safety innovations for 2022-2028. What holds our authorities back?

Inconsistencies in data also mar the already deplorable situation. Senator Villar questions the Department of Agriculture (DA) over the sharp increase of the 2022 price when Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data does not suggest the dire need for it. Using PSA data, overall onion demand in 2022 amounted to 270,410 metric tons (MT), while domestic production reached 238,561 MT and supplemented by 29,707 MT of imports to address deficiency. This leaves a difference of 2,142 MT of onion shortage for 2022. PSA data also shows a surplus of 53,000 MT of onions from 2021 supply, largely due to 101,000 MT of onion imports.

Meanwhile, DA also conveniently sees the crisis as an opportunity to allow more importation of onions despite our nearing local harvest season in February. The Department, under concurrent Secretary, no less than President Bongbong Marcos himself, devised an importation plan of 22,000 MT of onion to compensate for the ‘gap’ between supply and demand. This move is feared to further displace our local farmers nationwide as they face financial ruin despite high demand for their crops. Farmers in Occidental Mindoro reportedly earn P8-15/kilo of onions only to be resold up to P600/kilo in Metro Manila. There are also accounts of onion farmers committing suicide in Pangasinan. Other officials put blame on DA’s inadequate planning: inaccurate forecasting and not being able to import goods on time were crucial aspects, but the situation would not have been as critical as it is now had our government prioritized our own agricultural industry.

From the questionable decisions and lackluster response to the onion crisis, it would not be impossible to think that the cartel is run by someone with connections to the administration itself. In fact, the failing state of our agricultural industry is evident enough of the misplaced priorities of the current and previous administrations, and telling enough of a corrupted framework at its core that caused agricultural backwardness in the first place. Liberalization of our local agriculture, espoused by the Rice Tariffication Law, enabled rampant importations that drove local farmers to bankruptcy. As farmers get disparaged by lack of support, landlessness heightens as selling land poses to be a more viable option for survival than farming itself. Lands either get bought into haciendas or converted for commercial uses, both of which only exploits farmers and workers, and increases the price of commodities even further. Additionally, poor disaster response, adaptation, and mitigation to climate change drastically increase vulnerability of crops and marginalization of farmers. All in the name of capital and purported ‘economic development’ that does not even translate to the peoples’ well-being.

Aling Baby contemplates going back to Cagayan to plant crops of their own, “Magtatanim na lang ako, sa probinsya pwede namang magtanim. Kung may sobra, ibibenta kahit sa murang halaga. Para makatipid mula sa mga sibuyas na hindi galing sa ibang bansa.”

(I would like to farm myself in the province. We would sell the surplus, if any, at lower price. In this way, we could save from consuming onions that are not imported.)

Both Ate Mayeth and Aling Baby seem to display a profound understanding of the crisis as it affects them the most. After all the dilly-dallying and mental gymnastics by a circus of government clowns who, at the end of the day, can still afford and enjoy onions no matter what, the words which Aling Baby blurted out of concern for her future seem to make the most sense.

Reinvigorate our own agricultural industry. Overturn the liberalized orientation of our agriculture by repealing neoliberal policies and implementing long-term, sustainable solutions rooted on the concrete conditions of our society. Provide comprehensive support to our local farmers including redistribution of land, subsidies, and material support in the form of facilities and machineries. As a matter of fact, prioritizing the interest of the masses through genuine agrarian reform and national industrialization will only be a loss for a very few, but a win for the greater majority. The Philippines is an agricultural country, and it’s about time that we act like one.##

‘Huwag na lang tayong kumain ng onion’: Villar chides FTI execs over onion purchase –
Department of ‘Importation’? Cynthia Villar flags DA’s importation policy anew –
In the Philippines, Onions Are Now More Expensive Than Meat. Here’s Why –
No more onions at Kadiwa, needs new FTI supply deal –
DA has until Jan. 13 to explain shortage, ‘price manipulation,’ importation of onions –
DA execs face ombudsman probe over sugar, onion fiascoes –
Ombudsman probe to look into possible conspiracy in DA, FTI onion purchase –
The Bureau of Customs intercepts P43.845 million worth of smuggled fresh white onions from China. –
BOC intercepts P153.6M worth of smuggled onions –
Senators say onion prices disproportionate to size of domestic shortfall –
Municipal agriculturist Romel Calingasan from San Jose, Occidental Mindoro says, traders bought onions from them between P8-15/kilo, only to find out that their produce was sold to as high as P600 in Metro Manila. –
DA slammed for driving onion farmers to financial ruin, suicide –
Import plan to hurt local onion farmers — analysts –


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