A group of farmers in Nueva Ecija joined Senator Risa Hontiveros in opposing and expressing concern over the government’s move to import 21,060 metric tons of onions as the price of the commodity continues to soar in the Philippines.
But Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said Wednesday that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has no choice but to allow the importation of agricultural products amid the high prices of local produce to control inflation in the country.
Eric Alvarez, who sits on the board of directors of a producers’ cooperative in Vega Village, Nueva Ecija, told ANC’s Rundown the importation might hurt local farmers.
“I think our timing is late. The DA (Department of Agriculture) said they will import until January 27. So, there will be onions that will be sold from that date onwards. But that is the time when our local farmers start harvesting. So local and imported onions will be in the market at the same time,” he said in Filipino.
“If they arrive on January 27, they will be sold by February. That’s harvest season. So, prices of local onions will drop,” he explained.
Hontiveros noted it may be best for the authorities to observe local farmers’ onion harvests next week before making any drastic moves and encouraged the DA and the Bureau of Plant Industry to be cautious about the volume of onions the country will import.
The senator recommended a two-step process: import some, then “wait and see,” adding: “The harvest (of onions) of our farmers is already near. It will continue until April. If the harvest will be good just like last year, we might no longer need to import 22,000 metric tons of onions.”
She raised the possibility that only half of the amount of importation authorized by the President can be imported, especially if there will be good harvests in Nueva Ecija and Mindoro.
Alvarez said the importation of onions will only benefit importers.
“Our consumers will not benefit because importers will just sell their produce close to local prices. So they will earn. But smugglers can enter the picture too,” he noted.
Alvarez said that if the government really sees the need to import onions, then they should only import a two-week supply of it.
He noted that onion farmers in Nueva Ecija, Mindoro, and Pangasinan are set to start harvesting their crops in only a few days.
“We just need onions good for 2 weeks of consumption. After that, prices will drop because Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan will start harvesting. So, we can supply to the market. If we should import, let us only import a few, so farmers won’t suffer, especially those in Nueva Ecija and Mindoro who will harvest last,” he explained.
But at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum, Zubiri explained the need to empower the farmers in the country, as he noticed the huge difference between the farm gate price and the market price of different products.
He cited as an example the price of sugar, which is being sold at P50 to P55 per kilogram by farmers yet it is being sold at around P90 per kilogram in the markets.
“That’s why I understand the President when he says we need to import sugar, we need to import food because sometimes locally-produced food is just so expensive,” he said.
“If the President needs to bring down inflation, then it pains me to say this as an agriculturist, we have to look at the greater good of the country. We can’t allow runaway inflation… the President’s hand will really be forced. His hands are tied,” he added.
Zubiri emphasized the need to find the “right price” for producers and consumers so it could bring a win-win situation for the local farming industry and the economy.
“What we want to do is to help the farmers look for a sweet spot… We have to help the farmers and help the people as well because we cannot sell expensive products to the consumers. That is inflationary,” he said.
The Senate leader called out Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual, noting that the role of the Department of Trade and Industry is to ensure that the prices in the market are controlled through suggested retail prices, noting it was one of the reasons Pascual was not confirmed by the powerful Commission on Appointments.
Hontiveros said the importation order came too late as it came after the Christmas season.
“The importation is obviously being done belatedly. The imports should have been authorized two months ago in time for the holidays. This error is unforgivable. The BPI and the DA wrongly predicted that the December domestic supplies would be enough to cover the demand,” she said.
Further, the senator prodded the administration to help Filipino farmers recover from the bad weather that destroyed crops last year.
Hontiveros said the Bureau of Plant Industry and the DA should improve their data collection on onions, emphasizing that limited data could lead to rash decisions.