The Long view: Crocodile tears over onions

Crocodile tears over onions

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Email: [email protected]; Twitter:@mlq3 MANUEL L. QUEZON III

With nine bills filed in Congress proposing some form of Charter change (including the previously unthinkable constitutional convention option), it doesn’t hurt to play safe and remind the people you can put on a good show. Congress may have blocked the appointment of his brother to the Cabinet, but if it vetoed one Tulfo, it can stage a real extravaganza on the prodding of another, older Tulfo. One that places no less than the First Lady’s own brother in the dock—along with what Ambassador Teddy Boy Locsin in his more iconoclastic (and politically incorrect) crusading days would have termed a “Chinese chum.” Like cannibal jungle drums from a 1940s budget serial, the online attack dogs are already busy snarling that they may have been bloggers for the President before he won, but now that he’s won, they’re every bit as able as Tulfo to turn the tables on the man they helped elect.

The hearings to come seem to be zeroing in on the First Lady’s brother and a business partner who happens to be Chinese; the allegation is that the two are in cahoots to smuggle in onions. An exposé of this sort promises to be a test of the new, post-pandemic, post big network, and big newspaper eras: who will get to grandstand—and how, in the era of so many platforms competing for overall fewer and fewer pairs of eyes—when the hearings begin?

Most frustratingly, of course, is that aside from trying to uncover if, in a time of shortage, a fortunate few have managed to rake in big bucks by breaking the law, one has to wonder if the investigations will offer more light than heat into the actual causes of the onion shortage? Or is it all just theater: crocodile tears over onions.

As it is, we’re all getting a crash course in onions, supply chains, and agriculture. It’s fascinating stuff. The explanation that makes (discouragingly) sense to me is a fairly straightforward one. So, we plant onions once a year, around October to November when the rice harvest is in; because the harvest has a predictable date for both red and white onions, farmers get rock bottom prices if they wait to harvest; instead, they are tempted to harvest early, to get a better price, but harvesting early means the onions don’t last as long, so middlemen in the end face pressure to dispose of stock cheaply before it goes bad; in the end, supply doesn’t meet demand, so importation is still needed, except that in an election year (2022), no one moved, so imports weren’t made, and supplies ran out, and you get the picture (more or less, one hopes).

To be sure, an investigation, complete with witnesses being sworn in and screamed at, offers its own kind of public satisfaction and potential political benefits. In an ideal world, a proper Senate or even House investigation would fill in the remaining blanks, but to do so would raise far more questions. The problem with this is that it would put many more people in the hot seat.

I thought about this yesterday, as we were taping our episode for Proyekto Pilipino (our weekly show on civics which included period references to topical issues). Our topic was on agriculture, and I learned, for example, there are basically eight interventions between the farmer and the consumer, when in other countries, it’s usually just two to three. Combined with tremendous waste, each intervention compensates itself at the expense of the start and end of the cycle, the farmer and consumer. And these are, mind you, apparently only the legitimate, that is, market-involved, interventions. The extortion, say, of people like policemen or rebels demanding money for protection, is over and above these.

And yet, the big merchant houses are all going into logistics in a big way, a strategy derived from the pandemic. We saw during the pandemic how civil society and small businesses banded together to work with farmers to bring their product to consumers, eliminating many of the old interventions. The challenges remaining are twofold: first, to fight the loss of a sense of urgency as we return to normalcy (meaning no more push, based on demand, for solutions to the supply of vegetables in a manner that helps farmers get fairer prices); and second, the challenge, as one of my cohosts put it, to “dream big, start small, and expand fast,” because boutique solutions from the pandemic have to give way to a truly improved system for bringing vegetables to the broader public.

One of our guests, Betty Listino of Pansigedan Advocacy Cooperative (learn more at brought up all sorts of other issues that require attention, particularly for those who still remember the height of the pandemic when farmers were shown on the news destroying the produce they’d grown for lack of buyers. Land with a certain slope and beyond, for example, cannot be privately owned, which permanently places upland farmers in a permanently legally precarious plight as essentially agricultural squatters. In terms of government support through the agriculture department, the lion’s share of funding is for the big, politically back crops, so to speak: sugar, rice, and coconut; vegetables don’t even have the political prestige of say, export favorites such as cut flowers (a high-end product), coffee, or cacao.

Watch the new episode of Proyekto Pilipino on the following channels and timeslots: The Conscience Collective YouTube channel: Thursdays, 7 p.m.; mySKY 955: Fridays, 7 p.m. | Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m.; Jeepney TV: Sundays, 5 p.m. | Mondays, 6:30 a.m.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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