SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The Year of the Rabbit, reputed to be one of the luckiest in the Chinese zodiac, is starting with sleepless nights for President Marcos.

Maybe it’s simple jet lag from all that globetrotting with his kin, besties and favored officials in tow – to some of the most expensive cities in the world (next stop, Tokyo) in less than seven months.

Melatonin or (according to drinkers) a glass of red wine can do wonders for jet lag and insomnia.

BBM has a better prescription: he’s cutting down on his foreign trips.

Facing news anchors from several television stations last Monday, BBM said that after his state visit to Japan in mid-February, his only other planned outing this year is to California, for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation costume party. But the APEC leaders’ summit, to be hosted by San Francisco, is still in November.

In between the trips to Japan and the United States, it looks like BBM intends to tackle something that he said is keeping him up at night. Not the South China Sea issue – this was in a previous interview – but inflation.

Specifically, food inflation, due to soaring prices of some of the most basic agricultural commodities, among them onions and sugar – issues that are directly under BBM’s department.

Agriculture industry players have blamed the multiple food-related crises on “miscalculations” by the Department of Agriculture. They grouse that since July last year, the DA has been dropping the ball on supply issues, from sugar to broiler chicken, onions and now eggs.

Normally, if the secretary of agriculture had been someone other than the president of the republic, the person would have already been sacked over these crises involving food security. Other officials have been unceremoniously eased out for less in the past half-year.

Pinning the blame for inflation mainly on external factors is losing traction. The peso has stabilized, making imports less expensive, thanks to the easing of pressure from the US Federal Reserve and efficient intervention by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

Global supply chains continue to be disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But international transport corridors or solidarity lanes have been opened around the Black Sea to reduce the supply disruptions.

Agriculture industry players have said that the problems besetting domestic food production date farther back and go deeper than the Russia-Ukraine war.

The solutions to unstable Philippine agricultural production and heavy reliance on imports are mostly long term.

Meanwhile, Filipinos unhappy with high prices continue to post onion memes. The latest: onions as bridal bouquets.

It’s enough to give the agriculture secretary insomnia. Fortunately for BBM, he’s unlikely to fire himself.

*      *      *

The President might start sleeping a bit better as onion prices soften.

As of last weekend, onion retail prices in the wet markets in my neck of the woods had eased to P350 to 420 a kilo, from the holiday high of P720. Large yellow onions had also reappeared – good New Year news for those who miss smothering their bistek with the condiment.

But in an air-conditioned supermarket nearby, red onion was still being sold yesterday at P580 a kilo.

The price softening must be due to a combination of the arrival of the initial 1,200 metric tons of red and yellow onions legally imported from China over the weekend, and the start of the domestic harvest. The 1,200 MT is part of the 5,000 MT onion importation approved by the DA for this month.

We don’t know if the identification at a congressional hearing last Monday of alleged smugglers and hoarders of onions and other agricultural commodities will also lead to a further drop in retail prices.

*      *      *

The sugar price surge is messier to fix, probably because so many players across the value chain are well connected politically.

As of yesterday, white refined sugar remained at P98 to P108 a kilo in the wet markets near my home. In one supermarket chain, however, the prices were from P109 to a whopping P138 a kilo depending on the brand. Oh well, consumers punish greedy retailers by simply buying the stuff elsewhere.

Also unlikely to come down are prices of chicken eggs.

Yesterday, President Marcos ordered DA Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban to meet with egg producers and traders to find out why egg prices are surging. Marcos said the price hikes are not commensurate to the increase in the cost of certain egg production inputs such as chicken feed.

The short-term answer to the supply and price problems in these farm products is importation.

Marcos has said the government will ensure a two-month national buffer stock of sugar to deter price speculation and manipulation.

He said the sugar importation schedule is being rationalized to match the crop yield of local producers.

The success of the rationalization, however, will depend on the accuracy of the data collected. As agricultural producers have lamented, there is no reliable database of Philippine agricultural output whether actual or projected; all players instead depend on guesstimates.

As for onions, Marcos said the government is putting together a program that will help farmers boost production and consequently bring down prices.

We’ve heard such pronouncements before, however, along with calls for expanding cold chain facilities nationwide so that even small-scale farmers can benefit.

To this day, marginal farmers are still kept up at night by the lack of proper storage and transport to the market for their harvest, and being squeezed dry by middlemen who buy the crops dirt cheap at the farm gate.

BBM, you’re not alone in your sleepless nights.

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