THE high price of onions is disproportionate to the small shortfall in domestic production, which could have easily been addressed by well-timed imports, Senators said.

Senator Cynthia A. Villar, who chairs the Senate committee on Agriculture and Food, cited data from the Philippine Statistics Authority pointing to a 2021 onion surplus if domestic production and imports are added up, raising the question of why prices rose so sharply late in 2022.

In 2021, she said, domestic production amounted to 218,047 metric tons (MT) of onion, against demand of 266,526 MT.

“If you look at the 2021 figure… there was a shortage of 38,000 MT but DA imported 101,000 MT, so there was a surplus during 2021 of 53,000 MT,” she said.

“They said that prices went up during 2022 because there was a shortage, but there was an oversupply in 2021 of 53,000 MT, so even if there is a deficiency of 30,000 MT, (it should have been) more than covered by the oversupply in 2021,” she added.

Demand in 2022 amounted to 270,410 MT against domestic production of 238,561 MT. The Department of Agriculture (DA) said it authorized imports of 29,707 MT to address the deficiency.

At the hearing, Senator Maria Imelda Josefa R. Marcos said market prices as high as P750 per kilogram reflect an “abject lack of planning.”

“Minimal importation would have solved this if it had been timely and well projected. However, there seems to be as well a level of treachery and manipulation involved,” she added.

Ms. Villar said market prices are completely out of line with the estimated supply shortfall. The 2022 deficit of around 2,140 MT “does not justify the price of P550 to P700.”

She noted that prices did not rise to the same extent in 2019, when the shortfall was 12,663 MT, but the price during that year’s holiday season topped out at P180.

DA Policy, Planning and Regulations Undersecretary Mercedita A. Sombilla, speaking at the hearing, said that the figures she received from the Bureau of Plant Industry is not consistent with data being cited by the DA.

Ms. Villar said such inconsistencies undermine trust in official data.

“You guys are changing the figures to justify the wrongdoings performed by some of those in the DA,” she said.

According to Ms. Sombilla’s presentation, at the end of 2022, the onion supply was in deficit by 3,859 MT, with total supply at 313,542 MT and total demand at 317,401 MT.

“While we were reviewing the data, we also unearthed that there was over 10,000 MT… that did not come out, so there should be 6,000 MT available,” Ms. Sombilla said.

“So, we could say that we really don’t have a shortage to (justify the extent of the price increase),” Ms. Villar said. “That is why we’re calling this hearing for the people to be able to explain what is happening… they have to explain to us what is happening in the DA and, of course, in the Bureau of Customs (BoC).”

Senator Joseph Victor G. Ejercito, speaking at the hearing, said smugglers remain unchecked, and the volumes they are bringing in far outweigh the highly-publicized retail shipments brought in by Philippine Airlines (PAL) crew members.

“The PAL crew were bringing gifts for personal consumption. Previously (it was) apples, grapes, perfume, shoes. But now, they (bring) their families onions,” he said.

“We choose to punish (aircrew), but what about the big-time cartels, smugglers, protectors, who get past?”

The crew members caught by customs will be charged with violating the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act and the Plant Quarantine Decree of 1978.

Senator Mary Grace Natividad S. Poe-Llamanzares noted that the price of one kilo of onions has now exceeded the daily minimum wage.

She said that P700 per kilo of onion is “about three times as expensive as chicken and 25-50% more expensive than pork or beef.”

The BoC has made some arrests, BoC Assistant Commissioner Vincent Philip C. Maronilla said during the hearing.

“Of those that docked, we apprehended 86 containers recently. There are onions which passed through the Port of Mindanao Container Terminal, Subic, and Davao,” he added.

Ms. Villar dismissed the 987 MT of agricultural products seized as “irrelevant.”

“The amount we imported in 2021 is more than 100,000 MT. What you apprehended seems very small,” she said. “In figures, that amount is just (a rounding error)… That is worthless.”

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. also serves as his own Secretary of Agriculture, making any disruptions in the food supply his responsibility to a great extent.

“I think it is important that the President take that portfolio so that not only to make it clear to everyone what a high priority we put on the agricultural sector, but also as a practical matter so that things move quickly because the events of the global economy are moving very quickly,” Mr. Marcos has said.

“We have to be able to be agile, we have to be able to respond properly in a measured way as soon as there is a situation that needs to be addressed,” he added. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan