Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury - GulfToday

Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury

Philippine onion 4

Farmers loading sacks of harvested onions onto a tricycle at a farm in Bongabon. AFP

Even before his onions are fully grown, Philippine farmer Luis Angeles races to harvest the crop and cash in on eye-watering prices for a vegetable that has become a luxury item in the country.

Onion prices have soared in recent months, reaching as high as 800 pesos (nearly $15) a kilogram in Manila supermarkets, making them more expensive than chicken or meat.

Some restaurants have stripped the staple ingredient from dishes, while many families already grappling with the highest inflation in 14 years have stopped eating them.

To meet demand and push retail prices back below 200 pesos, the government has approved the importation of 21,000 tonnes of onions and faces calls to crack down on traders suspected of hoarding.

Philippine onion 2 Farmers harvesting onions. 

But prices remain stubbornly high and onion farmers like Angeles have been harvesting earlier than usual to reap the windfall.

"I told my family, 'Let's just smell the onion instead of eating it'," Candy Roasa, 56, said as she walked through a market in the capital where she has seen vendors selling bulbs the size of a small child's fist for as much as 80 pesos each.

As onion memes spread on social media, the humble vegetable has become a symbol of wealth in the poverty-afflicted country.

At least one bride used pricey bulbs instead of flowers for her wedding bouquet.

Philippine Airlines crew members on a recent flight from the Middle East were busted trying to smuggle a few bags of the pungent commodity through Manila's airport.

Poor planning

It is not the first time the Philippines has experienced a shortage of a basic food staple that caused prices to spike -- sugar, salt and rice have all been hit in the past.

Poor yields, high costs, insufficient investment in irrigation and machinery, lack of access to cold storage facilities and farm-to-market roads, and crop-destroying typhoons have long impacted the sector.

Pest outbreaks as well as soaring oil and fertiliser prices since Russia invaded Ukraine last year have only added to farmers' woes.

Despite government pledges to boost domestic food production, the country relies heavily on imports to feed its growing population -- but tariffs fuel inflation.

President Ferdinand Marcos appointed himself agriculture secretary to overhaul the near-moribund industry, which accounts for about a quarter of the country's employment but only makes up 10 percent of gross domestic product.


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"Our agriculture sector is significantly challenged," said Geny Lapina, agricultural economics and management professor at the University of the Philippines.

Every Filipino eats an average of 2.34 kilograms of onions per year and theoretically the country produces enough to meet the demand, official data shows.

But since the tropical climate only allows one planting per year of the rain-averse crop, stocks are consumed or spoil well before the next harvest.

Philippine onion 1 Philippine farmers harvesting onions. 

The recent lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, which allowed the resumption of food-focused festivals and family gatherings for Christmas, triggered soaring demand for onions.

Salvador Catelo, an agricultural economist at the University of the Philippines, said there were "lots of daunting challenges to be immediately solved".

"We have rich natural resource endowments which are absent in many countries that are performing (better) than us in terms of productivity and self-sufficiency," Catelo said.

As imported onions flow into the country, Angeles fears farm-gate prices could plummet to as low as 30 pesos per kilogram before he finishes his harvest.

"We are just trying to make our investment survive," he said.

Agence France-Presse

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