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Sibuyas at Cartel

I spent my first whole New Normal holiday last year, 2022, counting onions for the first time and other items from the market, cautiously but perplexed. Prices have soared tremendously.

Last December, as the world celebrated Christmas, the Philippines also marked a milestone. It made it to the Guinness record with the most expensive onions in the world! Today, the onions, garlic, and salt are a mine, so hard to get by at our suki store in the local market. They’re more expensive than meat equivalent to more than a day’s wage for a worker.

It used to be just counting the blessings and anticipated gifts happily we would get and, most significantly, to give away for Christmas. But in the season of scarcity, I began counting more, including the littlest items bought from the grocery and market with our allotted budget for the Noche Buena and gift giving. Tipid dapat. I began counting the onions in a kilo and looking for stores where to buy our favorite native rock salt. Last week, the native red onions sold at PhP600 a kilo! Then, I picked up 225 grams of salt in a plastic container labeled “Sea Salt” by McCormick, looking like an imported pack from the US but “Made in the Philippines”. I bought my first bunch of onions in November, and their prices rose to more than 100% on the next buy.

It’s ironic. It used to be that onions sold cheap because they were effortless to grow, and when harvested in significant volume to meet huge demand, they were easy to store. Moreover, when cooked as an accessory ingredient, they are flavorful and provide an extra tangy taste with garlic, another now-coveted food staple. I now realize the era of the cheap onion is gone.


Last Friday, the spokesperson of the Department of Agriculture, Rex Estoperez, announced that the DA under Secretary Ferdinand R. Marcos, also the country’s President, has ordered the importation of 22,000 MT of onions to augment the shortage and arrest rising costs. Farmers’ organizations and consumer rights groups are raising hell and warning of widespread protest. Government apologists again point to the Pandemic as the culprit, in addition to the global wars in Ukraine and the big R, the recession.

But an increasing number of good people in government are looking beyond and deeper into the problem. They agree with the farmers’ organization and civic and activist consumer rights groups that smugglers, hoarders, illegal traders, cartels, cold storage warehouse owners, and intermediaries in cahoots with some corrupt DA personnel are controlling and manipulating the prices from farm gate to market retail. As usual, our lawmakers are calling for a probe. But, wasn’t it only in 2016 when the former DA Secretary Emmanuel Pinol exposed the long-entrenched wealthy and powerful cartels controlling the onions and garlic trading within the agriculture industry? He said the importers were also the buyers of the farmers. He was relieved from his post shortly after.

Onions everywhere

Food historians point to Asia as the origin of the onion, one of the most ancient food ingredients, grown and cultivated for more than 5,000 years. Onion is a staple in everyone’s home in Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines. Bicol’s local cuisine is often sauteed with chopped onions and garlic as a base for many dishes. The sili labuyo and chili pepper add to the hot stingy sensation of the food.

Sibuyas, bawang at asin. Filipino kitchens cannot go without using these staple spices for cooking sinigang, kaldereta, sopas, nilaga, menudo, and sarciado. I used a lot of onions with garlic for our shrimp pasta. In decades past, our Lola Sisang would cook our Lolo’s favorite onion soup. In the next recent decades, our Mommy used onions for the brood’s famous beef stew cooked in a pressure cooker to make sure the meat and the potatoes were extra chewy and “malambot.” Cooking these with sibuyas, luya, bawang at asin, are a family’s Sunday treat.

Onions grow wild and are one of the easiest to grow, but they grow best in fertile soils that are well-drained and exposed to sunlight. They have few major pest issues, don’t take up much space, and can be grown anywhere. Manoy Ding, an onion farmer, says an onion’s average growth rate is 100 to 175 days till ready for harvest. After that, they multiply fast, so one can plant a few and have a steady supply of green onions. I tried to do mine on the veranda. I chopped the bottom of an onion bulb off and planted it in a small pot of garden soil. I failed on my first try. But I succeeded on the next, happily showing my husband my first onion bulb. It was just an experiment during the first year of Pandemic isolation at home.

The biggest onion producers in the world are China, Malim in Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, India, and the United States. Nueva Ecija, Ilocos Norte, and Cagayan Valley are the top producers in the country. In 2021, the DA reported a vast decline in onion production. Farmers complain about the low buying price. The cartels that control the supply and sell them at high prices have made the farmers’ plight unbearable.

Modus and a solution

Farmers’ groups complain about how the cartels have operated with impunity for many decades. They buy large quantities of onions from the farmers during the off-harvest season and sell high. When the government permits heavy importation, the traders hoard the surplus imports in their warehouses. Then, when the harvest season of local onion and garlic begins, the cartels release their accumulated stocks to the market to make local products cheaper. It’s a mafia modus to hoard and jack up prices. Manoy Ding agrees that only the traders with big warehouses to stock goods will benefit from importation and the current trading scheme.

A solution is to empower farmers, local producers, and social enterprises in agriculture. Let’s support local farms to produce more onions and garlic. But most of all, build more sturdy cold storage facilities for the farmers to compete in the open field against the powerful cartels.Then, they can sell right. And we can start counting good blessings again.


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