EDITORIAL - Prices to make you weep

The Philippine Star

Dishes in many households are less flavorful these days, and it’s a lack that cannot be compensated for merely by smothering food with Magic Sarap or MSG. Thanks to eye-watering prices this holiday season, households especially in underprivileged communities are forced to scrimp on one of the most basic condiments: onions.

White onions, favored for bistek Tagalog, onion rings and French onion soup, disappeared from the markets months ago. Red onions have not become scarce so far, but prices have skyrocketed, from just P300 a kilo at the start of the month to P500 to P600 as of this week.

Some local agricultural producers have pinned the blame on official “miscalculation” of regular national demand, aggravated by weather disturbances that disrupted harvests in certain areas earlier this year. The producers said onions are traditionally imported to stabilize supply and prices in between harvests, but no importations were allowed after this year’s summer production.

Last month, as onion retail prices hovered at P300 per kilo, Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban announced that the government was considering the importation of 7,000 metric tons of red onions. The government had imposed a suggested retail price of P170 per kilo, but the market shrugged off the SRP.

Other local producers, on the other hand, said domestic onion supply was sufficient, with farmgate prices during harvest ranging from just P45 to P55 a kilo. The Department of Agriculture has since announced that there would be no onion importation until the next harvest, which is still from February to March next year. Onion planting season is from October to December.

If there is an artificial onion shortage, some unscrupulous traders are making a killing at public expense. In the absence of an accurate inventory of domestic agricultural output, however, the government may never establish with certainty that onion supply and prices are being manipulated, and the perpetrators will go unpunished.

As a stopgap measure, the government announced yesterday that it would be imposing yet another SRP on red onions, this time at P250 a kilo. Demand, however, drives prices, and people are still preparing for feasts to welcome the New Year. Amid continuing high demand, it remains to be seen whether retailers, who base their profit margins on their wholesale buying price, can comply with the price cap.

The Bureau of Customs is holding tons of smuggled onions valued at P200 million, but the agriculture department, citing phytosanitary concerns, had previously refused to release into the market confiscated imported onions to bring down prices. As onion retail prices reportedly jumped to P720 a kilo yesterday from just the previous day’s P600, the public is crying for relief.

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