In 2022, agriculture sank deeper into the rabbit hole

THE most-discussed issue on agriculture in the last few days of 2022 was onions, usually a mundane concern, but now a topic big enough to attract national attention. A kilo of onions, the white kind used as fill-in for burgers and the type with the most culinary use, breached P400 per kilo, which meant two kilos of chicken, or more than the price per kilo of scarce, domestically-produced pork . Meanwhile, another round of price surges for onion looms. Online sellers now quote prices between P450 and P500 per kilo, excluding delivery charges.

That kind of price distortion attracts price monitoring agencies and the legislature. It prompted Sen. Imee Marcos, the sister of President Marcos Jr., to call for an inquiry into the whys. What is the use of a price cap if we can’t even enforce it, the senator said. And what was the Department of Agriculture doing as the price of a kilo of onions exceeded the daily pay of most fast food slave wage workers in the provinces? Red onions, wet and soggy and fresh from the fields and barely useful for restaurants and fast food chains but a better fit for the Filipino taste, reportedly sell at P700 per kilo, at parity with the most coveted beef cuts, at least according to media reports.

A Senate resolution on the inquiry into overpriced onions was filed as the Bureau of Customs (BoC) was extra busy seizing smuggled onions. But with the country’s porous borders and the barely-monitored smaller seaports, nothing can stop the lucrative smuggling of onions despite serious efforts of the BoC to rein in the racket. Smuggling, as we all know, is incentivized by huge profits.

The other agriculture-centric stories of 2022 were just as depressing.

A fresh sugar import of 64,000 metric tons was hastily cleared by Malacañang amid protests from many sugar planters and millers. The armchair overseers of the sugar industry and assorted state apparatchiks who encountered the word “quedan” for the first time in their pampered lives determined the import volume that easily sailed through the desk of Mr. Marcos Jr. And without public hearings. The apparatchiks apparently told him that a double-digit inflation was looming and emergency brakes through more sugar imports, and more imports of critical foodstuff, were required. Focus on inflation fears in the pro-import memo to the President and the apparatchiks arguing for liberalized agri trade will always have their way.

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(Reining in inflation was the reason most public understood. But there is a side story here. The billionaire-plutocrats are owners of major confectionery businesses and they are the main proponents of unlimited sugar imports. And they have more influence over the shape and direction of most government decisions than the diminished sugar planters and millers. What the plutocrats want, the plutocrats get. That we have all-powerful sugar barons is more myth than reality.)

Overpricing. Imports. Smuggling. Power of the plutocracy. Inflation fear-mongering The toxic portees of things to come for an already prostrate agriculture sector. And we are yet to list down the more dispiriting developments as we make a faithful accounting on what happened to the agriculture sector in 2022.

Even if much of the national conversation on agriculture focuses on rice, rice being the national staple and the Philippines being a country with a glorious rice production culture, that conversation has never been uplifting and morale-boosting. This year was another dampener. All estimates point to a 2022 rice importation of at least 3 million metric tons, almost at par with the greed and profit-driven rice importation in 2019, the first year of the Rice Tariffification Law (RTL). Again, we will be the second-biggest rice importer in the world after China, a country that can justify its rice imports because of its 1.4 billion people and its role as “factory to the world.”

Our record-high rice imports have failed to impact on rice prices in a major way, with today’s rice prices only slightly lower than rice prices pre-RTL. A small group of well-connected rice importers and traders has been reaping the windfall from the scrapping of the quantitative restrictions on rice and the passage of the RTL. The impotency of this law in lowering rice prices for consumers did not prevent the previous government from adding an executive order for more liberalized food imports — rice included — on top of the RTL. That was Executive Order (EO) 171 that further lowered tariffs on rice, corn, coal and pork.

Mr. Marcos Jr., who promised to resurrect the agriculture sector from the rabbit hole and give it a second life, closed 2022 by extending that same EO up to December 2023, the equivalent of pushing the prostrate sector deeper into the rabbit hole. In the battle for the heart and mind of Mr. Marcos, the neo-liberalist cabal responsible for the defenestration of the agriculture sector over the past six years — and whose ringleaders are still the same characters at the helm of the economic agencies — has scored another major win. The gang leaders may have doubtful numeracy skills and analytical rigor but fear-mongering about a looming double-digit inflation that may trigger social unrest, however unfounded, is their area of ​​specialization.

Mr. Marcos Jr. chose fear of inflation and supposedly economy-busting unknowns over his original plan to protect domestic farm producers and lift agriculture from the sorry morass it has been in for years. That unfortunate choice of fear over hope truly sank agriculture deeper into the rabbit hole in 2022, with no hope of resurrection for 2023. And maybe beyond.

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