Agricultural woes: From salty to sweet

Published September 21, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Rikki Mathay


Weeks after news broke out about how an archipelago surrounded by 36,000 kilometers of shoreline has been importing 93 percent of its national salt requirements, local markets continue to experience shortage of agricultural items. While having sufficient resources may shield us from the effects of any shortage in our households, head over to fast food chains and you’ll hear of apologies for missing ingredients in their menu, including potatoes and white onions.

Meanwhile, the economics of low supply and high demand resulting in increasing prices has set back majority of Filipino households on a daily basis.

Before, salt farming was a thriving industry in the country. The Philippines was nearly, if not 100 percent salt self-sufficient. All this changed in 1995 with ASIN, or the Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide’s passage which required all food-grade salt in the Philippines be iodized. Lack of training and funds to iodize their salt forced many of our salt farmers to give up their livelihood. Hence, the need for importation arose.
From salty to sweet, it is dumbfounding how the Philippines has been largely importing agricultural products — an irony for a largely agricultural nation. What’s more incredulous is despite the wide-scale importations, we still suffer from shortages of several agricultural goods.

Despite several laws in place to prevent smuggling of agricultural products, the line between smuggling (defined as the illegal movement across an international border violating customs laws and regulations) and legalized importation seems to have been blurred.

At the forefront of this new battle against the blurry lines is Senator JV Ejercito, and understandably so as he was the main author of the Anti Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016. At that time, I was working in his office and I witnessed how hard he fought, even as a neophyte senator back then, to protect the farmers through legislation.

“We relentlessly pursued the anti-smuggling act when there was a shortage of rice back in 2016. This law covers sugar, garlic, onions and other agricultural products. Instead of relying on imported rice, I wanted to protect our very own farmers from unscrupulous traders and importers, and in doing so promote our agricultural sector. We needed to protect the livelihood of the thousands of Filipino farmers against the economic saboteurs,” Ejercito said.

Aside from defining large scale agricultural smuggling as economic sabotage and a heinous crime with 17 years or lifetime imprisonment, he had been advocating to modernize farming methods and building new sugar mills in order to help the agricultural sector. From sweet to salty matters, the key to protecting our local farmers is empowering them with the proper tools, not only to support their livelihoods, but for them to compete at the global stage.

While importation seems to be the viable option for now, another matter that needs to be addressed are the massive grants of permits to importers.

“Left and right, agencies are giving the authority to import so technically the smuggling has stopped,” Ejercito said.

While the matter of granting importation permits has yet to be addressed if not regularized, the nation needs the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to heighten border security against unscrupulous importers of agricultural products.

The BOC Intelligence and Enforcement Groups expressed its commitment to work with stakeholders “to curb the proliferation of smuggled sugar in the country.”

With the President of the Republic no less at the helm of the Department of Agriculture, Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food Chair Senator Cynthia Villar herself, expressed confidence that if anyone can curb agricultural smuggling, it is the President himself.

For the first time since the DA was established in 1898 (then under the name Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce), a chief executive has risen to the occasion to lead what could be one of the nation’s driving forces to economic growth. With President and concurrent DA Secretary Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s resolute commitment to increase agricultural production and ensure the protection of our farmers, the nation has the actual opportunity to finally see true agricultural reform.