SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 20, 2020 - 12:00am

The onions from India have arrived, and my suki is selling them: large, bright red, clean and shiny.

Initially retailed for P200 per kilo against the less physically appealing local variety’s P250, you can tell immediately which is selling better these days. With the arrival of more imports, prices have dipped to P180 for the Indian variety and P230 for the local.

The onions taste exactly the same, and when the price difference is P50 per kilo, nationalism can fly out the window. Especially when there is suspicion – unfounded, both growers and agriculture officials insist – that local onion prices spiked during the Christmas season because dealers hoarded the supply to make prices soar from P60 to P80 per kilo in November to an eye-watering P250.

The onion imports have just started arriving, so we can expect a further price drop. Even P180 for the good quality Indian onion is still too much.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar says there was truly a two-month shortfall in local onion production late last year – about 25,000 metric tons. On average, the country consumes 17,500 MT of onions a month. Dar says the shortfall pushed up prices during the Christmas season when demand is traditionally high.

Apart from the importation, which will last only until mid-February before the March harvest, the Department of Agriculture (DA) is promoting increased onion production because the country simply isn’t growing enough of the crop, Dar told “The Chiefs” last week on Cignal TV’s One News channel.

Considering the high prices, I’m guessing we’re also not growing enough of several other basic cooking ingredients: garlic and chili (finger and bird’s eye varieties). Prices of Ilocos garlic are in the stratosphere (fortunately I have a suki wholesaler in Divisoria) while finger chilis or siling haba were priced at P5 to P8 each as of the weekend.

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The ideal way of bringing down prices, of course, is by producing more of the items locally and increasing supply. In our still largely agrarian society, unfortunately, agriculture remains one of the sectors whose potentials for powering economic growth we haven’t fully exploited.

One upside of the high prices is that they might entice more Filipinos, particularly the youth to consider agriculture as a career.

Dar told us that the DA is unveiling this month three programs along this line.

The first, geared toward millennials, is the “ Youth Agripreneurship Loan Program.” Under this program, to be launched later this month at the Cavite State University, people aged 15 to 30 can borrow up to P500,000 in credit, with zero interest, payable in five years. Dar says the government has set aside P1 billion to finance agribusiness startups.

Those who have moved on from being young ones to young once have their own program. Geared toward people with some background in the sector, the Micro and Small Entrepreneurship Program will make available up to P15 million in interest-free credit, payable in five years, to micro and small agribusiness enterprises. There is no age limit for participants.

The third program provides grants for youth agri-tech business incubation projects. Dar told us that the model is high-tech business incubation in California’s Silicon Valley.

“Inclusive agribusiness” is the goal for the programs, Dar said, with the government providing assistance from production to processing and marketing of goods.

These projects deserve full support. Agribusiness can be hugely profitable. It can stimulate economic activities in the countryside where they are most needed. They can fuel tourism. They can create the kinds of jobs that might make our people think twice about seeking employment overseas despite the fates that befell Jeanelyn Villavende and Joanna Demafelis.

Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have enviable agricultural sectors. Israel has coaxed bananas and mangoes, believe it or not, out of desert soil – and is exporting the crops to Europe. With their scarce resources, Israeli water management for irrigation is awesome and their pest control methods work like precision-guided missiles.

The innovation ecosystem in Israel is so sophisticated that youths are thinking of incubation projects for state funding even while still in high school.

Some years ago when I attended one of the international innovation / startup conferences in Tel Aviv, I met several Israelis who had become multimillionaires because of their innovative products and services – and they were only in their 20s. The products covered practically all sectors, from agribusiness to medicine, fashion design, ICT and space technology. Apart from the startups, I watched a stunning demo of an already existing product – possibly the world’s most advanced surveillance technology, already in use for counterterrorism in several countries.

The Israelis are keenly aware of the usefulness – and immense profitability – of innovative products.

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Profitability is a key driver of career preferences. Rice tariffication – which has sent our domestic rice production to the ICU – for sure further soured Pinoy youths to a career in agriculture.

There’s more to agribusiness, however, than rice farming. And even in this area, our farmers can be encouraged to shift to special, pricier rice varieties.

Dar also says the promised boost to rice production, as envisioned under the rice tariffication program, is forthcoming – although let’s hope this won’t happen when all the farmers have already abandoned their farms.

With the interest-free loans being made available, the government may see strong interest in agribusiness ventures not only in traditional cash crops such as coffee but also in crops such as mangosteen and ube or purple yam. There’s a wide room for expansion in cacao production and chocolate processing, organic farming and production of gourmet salts and specialty rice. Vanilla production is showing promise.

Vietnam and Thailand began producing dried chips and snack fries from taro or gabi, ube, camote or sweet potato and even okra ages ago. They were also way ahead of us in exporting canned coconut cream and coconut juice. The Thais produce better quality ube and pandan extracts and powder flavors than us. Why can’t we match them or do better?

With proper implementation, perhaps the new agribusiness programs will allow us to catch up.

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