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End the onion folly

A man holds up one of many bags of onions at the Department of Agriculture main office in Quezon City on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. PHOTO BY MIKE DE JUANA man holds up one of many bags of onions at the Department of Agriculture main office in Quezon City on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. PHOTO BY MIKE DE JUAN 

FROM our perspective, either as observers of current events or stressed consumers confused as to why we are paying more for a handful of lowly onions than we would for a cut of prime imported beef, the current chaos involving this most basic of agricultural commodities is not only an undeserved burden, it is a national embarrassment. It is time to put an end to it, by whatever means necessary.

A solution, or at least the beginning of one, proposed this week by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian may help. Reacting to news that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had approved the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) plan to import just under 22,000 metric tons of onions to help relieve the supply shortage, Gatchalian proposed the formation of a task force to investigate smuggling, hoarding and price-gouging by agricultural traders. While other officials have given lip service to this obvious source1 of the current onion crisis, Gatchalian’s proposal is the first concrete recommendation to address it.

The senator said that the task force should be headed by the DA, and include the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). Its basic mission would be to determine why the price of onions has remained ludicrously high despite efforts by the government and farmers who are now providing their fresh harvest to relieve supply shortages.

Gatchalian also said that the problem of large-scale agricultural smuggling must be addressed, pointing out that this is punishable as economic sabotage under Republic Act 10845 enacted in 2016. Besides a large amount of onions, there is rampant smuggling of sugar, corn, pork, poultry, garlic, carrots, fish and vegetables, yet there have been very few perpetrators caught and convicted.

We support Gatchalian’s task force proposal and urge the relevant agencies to form the investigative body immediately. However, there is a dubious tradition in this country, highlighted by the relative lack of enforcement of the anti-agricultural smuggling law, of investigations being launched with little or no results. That must not be allowed to happen again, lest the current dubious situation is endlessly repeated, season after season.

Swift legal action

In terms of outcomes of the investigation of the task force proposed by Senator Gatchalian, there needs to be swift legal and administrative action taken against those traders who are found to be manipulating the market. If actual crimes have been committed, those should be dealt with severely. At a minimum, offending traders and other middlemen should have their permits to do business revoked, and be permanently banned from the trade.

Senator Gatchalian also said that the Senate ways and means committee, which he chairs, will soon be launching an inquiry into the shortcomings of the Bureau of Customs (BoC) in relation to the unabated smuggling of agricultural goods. It is certainly his prerogative to call for such hearings, and they can indeed contribute to fact-finding, but we believe the situation at the BoC has gone too far to be addressed in Senate hearings alone. Whether through incompetence, a lack of capacity and resource1s, or corruption, the BoC is quite obviously not currently capable of fulfilling its mandate and responsibilities, and the reasons why need to be identified and addressed as quickly as possible. This may require involving the Office of the Ombudsman, or perhaps can be added to the mandate of the proposed task force.

Finally, other efforts on the part of the government to moderate the prices of basic goods, largely through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), must be reviewed and revised to be more effective. As has been widely reported, the “suggested retail price” (SRP) imposed for onions, which was set at P250 per kilogram, has been comprehensively ignored in the market. According to data we gathered on Monday, prices of onions continue to range from P420 to P600 per kg around Metro Manila. The root of the price problem, as many in the government and the agricultural sector have already identified, is in the wholesale prices; the high retail prices are merely a consequence. In order for SRP to be effective at all, the DTI and the DA should consider imposing complementary price ceilings on agricultural goods at the trade level, which would help to reduce the gap between SRP and actual prices.

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