Missing, smuggled, pricey: onions in the Philippines, a symbol of the country’s inflation

Price of onions in the Philippines has soared in light of the shortage. Meanwhile, authorities fight smuggling and have approved an urgent import of tons of onions just weeks before the new local harvest season.

Smuggled onions labeled as frozen lobster balls and crab sticks seized by Filipino authorities | © Department of Agriculture

Onions in the Philippines have become so rare that restaurants don’t include them in dishes and some allegedly attempt to smuggle them in luggage bags.

The Philippine economy is yet recovering from difficult moments and an economic downturn from 2020 until the first quarter of 2021 as the gross domestic product grew 7.6 percent in the year 2022 at constant prices.

Nevertheless, inflation has also been high in the country, at 5.8 percent on average for 2022, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, with a worrying peak at the end of the year. Prices increased 8.1 percent in December 2022 compared to December 2021, the highest inflation rate reported since November 2008. The price index also rose 8.0 percent in November 2022.

This week, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr described the country’s food inflation as “an emergency situation.” And prices of onion have been skyrocketing in the last months, far more than the inflation rate.

On January 27, onions were sold between 170 and 350 pesos per kilogram (3.12 to 6.43 dollars per kg, 1.41 to 2.91 dollars per pound), according to the Department of Agriculture’s daily price monitoring. A year earlier, onion’s retail prices were at 80 to 160 pesos per kg.

Onions, a staple ingredient in Filipino cuisine, have even become a luxury compared to other food prices: An egg, whose price has also increased lately, costs 8 to 9 pesos, and a whole chicken is 170 to 210 pesos per kg. Yet, onion prices have decreased lately. They could still reach 600 pesos in early January and are far from the 720 pesos per kg (13,23 dollars per kg, 327 dollars per pound) observed in Metro Manila during the holiday season at the end of the year. It was more than the daily minimum wage in the national capital region (533-570 pesos).

As an initiative from the Department of Agriculture to provide affordable food, Kadiwa store outlets have been set up offering direct-to-consumer locally farmed products at affordable prices. They are expected to continue at least until February and March. Red and white onions have been sold at 170 pesos per kg since October, with each consumer allowed to buy a maximum of three kilos. But the initiative is extremely limited as in November there were only eleven stores in Metro Manila, one in the Visayas region, and two in the island of Mindanao.

Local onion production was weak last year, worsened by storms that caused substantial crop damage. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in demand as the economy recovers. In light of food shortage, sugar used to be missing at some point, and smuggling of agricultural commodities proliferated, according to the government.

In January, The Philippine Airlines were investigating at least 10 crew members for attempting to smuggle nearly 40 kg of onions and fruits into luggage bags on flights from Riyadh and Dubai, according to the Philippines Star.

To curb the entry of smuggled food, the national government launched an anti-smuggling campaign last year. Government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine National Police, have combined efforts with the objective to “protect local traders and consumers from the illegal entry of agricultural produce, and safeguard the food safety.”

Authorities on November 24 seized a total of 105 sacks of smuggled yellow onions in three markets of Metro Manila for a total weight of 744 kg. They were valued at 225,000 pesos (4,131 dollars).

On December 2, container vans with 100 tons of yellow onions worth 30 million pesos (551,000 dollars) were declared as “bread/pastries.”

On December 9 in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, north of Metro Manila, containers labeled as frozen lobster balls and crab sticks actually contained fresh red and white onions. Another container labeled as assorted consumables contained frozen carrots. The combined estimated value of the seized agricultural products was 20 million pesos, according to the Department of Agriculture.

On December 15, a cargo at the Manila International Container Port was declared as shipping frozen prawn balls. They actually contained banned poultry meat from China and various meat products with an estimated value of 31.5 million pesos.

On December 27, red and white onions worth 25.3 million pesos were seized. On January 3, 27.8 million worth of contraband – specifically fresh red and white onions, frozen pork stomach pouch cuts, and frozen boneless beef shanks, were found. A day later, 23.4 million worth of illegally imported red onions were also discovered in three container vans.

Yet in mid-December, the Department of Agriculture announced it would not import onions for the remainder of the year. Aware of the shortage of onion supply, the government however wanted to wait until local farmers start their harvest season in January and February to replenish shelves. It didn’t last.

The president of the Philippines eventually approved the import of 21,060 metric tons of onions to meet the local demand in the short term. All of the imported onions would go to markets on Luzon island, where Metro Manila is located, while consumers in the Visayas and Mindanao islands will each receive 25 percent of the import.

The first batch of imported onions, 400 tons of yellow onions and 800 tons of red onions, has arrived in the country this week.

Onion growers are actually going to start harvesting their crops and critics of the president argue the timing is bad as imported onions will come at the same time as local production goes out in the market.

Agriculture Assistant Secretary Rex Estoperez assured onions would not be sold below local production costs to avoid harming farmers’ revenue.

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