Sticker shock
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 6, 2020 - 12:00am

During the holidays, the government put a lid on price increases for basic grocery Noche Buena fare including spaghetti and hotdog, fruit cocktail, ham and quezo de bola.

There was also a price watch in the wet markets for chicken and other meats as well as the Pinoy staple, rice.

One item that is widely used during the holidays, however, made me weep from the price increase. From a low of P60 to P80 per kilo in November in my suki wet market stalls, prices of red onion shot up to a dizzying P200 to P250 by the second week of December.

I think Typhoon Ursula came too late to destroy onion harvests, so I don’t understand the price surge. Onion growers said previous typhoons ruined harvests in Nueva Vizcaya, the major producer. The next harvest is expected no earlier than March.

My favorite hawkers wouldn’t give me, their kuripot suki, even a little discount to soften the sticker shock because they said they also bought their products high. They said they were waiting for imports from India to bring down prices.

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The eye-watering price jump of siling labuyo or bird’s eye chili in 2018 from P150 a kilo to about P1,000 didn’t bother me too much because I’m not into hot food except for Buffalo wings and chili chocolate treats. Also, a kilo of siling labuyo is a helluva lot of chili, so buying what I needed for one meal cost only a tiny fraction of the P1,000 per kilo at the time.

But red onions? These are basic ingredients for cooking in most countries. Agriculture officials have attributed the price surge to tight supply.

So imports are expected soon. Onion growers have said they are OK with this but want assurance that the importation will be stopped when the next harvest season rolls around. I’m not sure if this will happen. If the imports are cheaper, they will sell better than the local varieties, so there is incentive for continued importation or else smuggling.

The imported onions are usually bigger, cleaner and with less bruising, and of a more attractive brighter red. Still, I buy local when I can to support our farmers and also because the taste is the same.

What could make me turn to imports is the price. I want to buy Filipino, but when the difference is more than a hundred percent for an item that I use extensively, jettisoning nationalism can be irresistible.

Obviously, these periodic importations can be ruinous for local farmers. The imports are often cheaper and the quality is either the same or better.

Someone has to assist our farmers so they can grow top quality red onions. The local shallots are no problem; like Ilocos garlic, sibuyas Tagalog is much better than the imports.

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Our agriculture sector in fact can use more support in terms of growing better quality crops. While agriculture accounts for a large chunk of Philippine GDP, there’s still a wide room for improvement in many areas, if we compare the performance of the sector with those of neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.

Proponents of “unli” rice importation argue that we don’t have a Mekong River like Thailand and Vietnam or the Indus and Ganges Rivers like India, which allow those countries to be major rice exporters.

But what’s our excuse for not being able to become a major exporter, for example, of cut flowers like Thailand and Vietnam? Those countries were also way ahead of us in exporting canned coconut milk and Tetra Pak coconut juice. They have been exporting canned mangosteen and rambutan for years. Why is tiny Taiwan exporting garlic to us while we can’t produce enough for local consumption of our far superior Ilocos garlic?

At least we’re beginning to see the market potential of specialty rice. For our family’s Three Kings gathering yesterday, for example, I cooked paella negra using black rice certified organically grown in Central Mindanao by the Don Bosco Multi-Purpose Cooperative. It’s marketed as “forbidden” rice served only to emperors. The price is steep but worth it, and black rice is supposed to be rich in minerals and anti-oxidants. Local coffee production is also up, with exceptional varieties from the highlands, backed by improved marketing.

I still had to augment the squid ink for my paella, however, with expensive cuttlefish ink from Italy. With the abundance of squid and cuttlefish in our waters, when will we start marketing our own bottled cuttlefish ink?

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Apart from onions, prices of many other items outside the basket of Christmas goodies on the price watch list of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) went up in the past season.

Butter and margarine prices, for example, have jumped by 30 to 50 percent from the prices in Christmas 2018.

Inflation is expected to spike again with the start of the additional excise tax on fuel products – the second tranche of TRAIN, or Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion.

Fuel pump prices are up, and are expected to go higher because of the escalation of conflict between the United States and Iran.

With higher fuel prices, transport fares and delivery costs are expected to follow. Power rates are also going up this month. Higher logistics costs are passed on to consumers by everyone – from the vegetable growers of La Trinidad in Benguet to the hog raisers of Rizal and the producer of my favorite fresh carabao milk in Nueva Ecija.

The DTI is reportedly monitoring prices of basic goods amid the tension, but government intervention on the impact of supply and demand on consumer prices can only go so far.

After the holiday celebrations, price increases are a surefire way of pulling us rudely down to life’s daily woes.

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