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Opinion

Sugar, spice and all things in short supply

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Consumers are crying over onions. They have none to peel, as the white variety has become scarce. Retail price has soared to P400 per kilo (seven to nine bulbs), from only P120 last month. Dept. of Agriculture bureaucrats claim it just so happened that North and Central Luzon farmers planted red onions instead of white. But don’t worry, Usec. Kristine Evangelista told Ted Failon and DJ Chacha’s radio show Monday. Things will normalize with white onion harvest come November.

Wrong, interjected Pangasinan grower Ronnie Ringor in the same program. November is not the Philippines’ harvest season for white onions. It’s January-February. Planting starts only in November when the rainy season begins to wane. That coincides with winter no-cropping in China, Korea and Europe.

Those bureaucrats should tell the public and the President-cum-DA Secretary the truth. A cartel controls onion, garlic, ginger and pepper supply. Congressional hearings since 2008 have identified the cartel queen.

The cartel controls the DA. Through fake farmer cooperatives, the queen corners bulk of the import permits. Though also smuggling spices, she has managed to evade prison.

An interview with an agriculture secretary years ago revealed the extent of the queen’s influence. “She is the good cartel,” he told me. The Constitution orders government to dismantle monopolies and cartels. Agri-smuggling, food hoarding and price gouging comprise economic sabotage, a non-bailable heinous crime that fetches life terms.

The cartel brings in white onions from March-October and stuffs them in cold storages. Evangelista and Ringor agreed that those stocks should be flushed out pronto. Otherwise, come domestic harvest, the queen will again flood the market with imports. Farmers, with little cold storage space left and desperate to recover even just part of the P300,000-per-hectare input, will be forced anew to accept her low buying price.

That’s if the usual white onion growers will plant at all this season. Climate change and the past admin’s all-out food import policy have discouraged cash cropping. Even red onions can soon become rare. Unprecedented since the birth of the Republic, the previous DA secretary allowed red onion imports in the first half of 2022. As the imported red variety retailed for only P3.50 per kilo in the country’s eastern seaboard, traders shunned domestic harvests in the western coast. With no government help and cold storage, farmers in Mindoro had to burn nine million harvested kilos.

*      *      *

Sugar prices also soured consumer tastes. Refined stocks now retail at P108 a kilo, 42 percent more than the P72.50 in June, said Steven Cua, supermarkets association president. It’s milling season yet prices are being manipulated. Even cane planters are groaning, remarked Manuel Lamata, United Sugar Producers Federation president. There’s an artificial shortage, Evangelista declared in July.

A trade cartel also rules the industry. Allegedly through the Sugar Regulatory Administration, it controls the yearly export of stocks to America. Creating a shortfall, it then commands remedial imports, Steven Chan (now deceased) exposed as far back as 2019, as president of Central Azucarera de Bais.

Last week the SRA approved imports of 300,000 tons. “Illegal,” Press Secretary Trixie Angeles snapped. As DA secretary and therefore SRA chairman, President Bongbong Marcos has not even convened the board. Yet DA Operations USec Leocadio Sebastian signed on his behalf, along with SRA vice chairman Hermenegildo Serafica and board members Roland Beltran representing millers, and Aurelio Valderrama Jr. representing planters.

“Investigation is ongoing of any act for the President to lose trust and confidence in his officials, or malice and negligence,” Angeles said. “In such case, the only determination left will be how many heads will roll.”

Then, a July 15 memo circulated online that Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez had granted Sebastian authority to “serve as the DA Secretary’s Chief of Staff … sign contracts, agreements, administrative issuances [like imports] … sit as ex-officio chairman or member of (DA agencies) … and head procurement.” At once Angeles cleared Rodriguez, purporting that unnamed forces were ganging up on him. But Sebastian, who resigned last weekend, “is not yet off the hook.” Beltran resigned Monday and Serafica yesterday.

Last month, the SRA had sent word that Marcos Jr. wanted the 300,000-ton import and sought their comments, Lamata told Gotcha yesterday. Fellow planters proposed that only refined sugar be brought in to benefit consumers. Yet SRA split the import into half refined and half raw sugar. The latter would have cut into their bulk sales of sweeteners to soda and juice makers, he said. “Only one miller in Bukidnon would have benefited. Then we find out from Malacañang that the total import was illegal.”

Marcos Jr. said he might allow a 150,000-ton sugar import in October if conditions warrant. Last May, the previous admin approved a 200,000-ton import supposedly to bring down retail prices. Yet the SRA let in only industrial-grade for big buyers, not households. The President’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos, denounced the “midnight deal.”

Has the cartel’s tentacles reached Malacañang? Most likely, planters lament, given that it has re-operated six weeks into the new admin.

*      *      *

Ironically in this archipelago of 7,641 islands, salt shortage also looms. The Philippines imports 93 percent of its salt and makes only seven percent. One snafu among foreign suppliers and domestic food processing will collapse. Kabayan party-list Rep. Ron Salo proposes a policy-making inter-agency body to revitalize salt-making and incentivize farmers and exporters.

Low tech, climate change and lack of government support ruined the country’s salt self-sufficiency a decade ago. Makers depended only on sun for salt-bed evaporation, unlike in other lands where modern means are used to remove salt from seawater. Unpredictable rains melted and contaminated fields of salt crystals. Fines for failure to iodize the produce discouraged investors. They moved into new business lines; salt fields converted into beachfront residences.

Short of sugar, sibuyas and salt, Filipinos will have no pampatamis, pampa-anghang, pampa-alat.

*      *      *

Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., dwIZ (882-AM).

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