Crisis to crisis
Right after we taped our “Proyekto Pilipino” episode last week (about onions), word came that a tomato crisis was brewing. By now, you’ve probably heard of it after seeing the appeals online to help tomato farmers get something for the crop they were compelled to consider simply throwing away. Appeals to the middle and upper classes to buy tomatoes is public-spirited, generous, but only a start: with tons poised to go to waste, concerned individuals got together to find customers willing to order by the ton. Mercifully, there are some of these; with the added advantage that purchasing from the tomato crop can supply products such as tomato sauce and paste, products that extend the commercial life of the crop.
The story of how the alarm was sounded over tons of tomatoes potentially going to waste, and the ways business people and civil society came together to find ways to connect buyers with producers, is something that will be told on this Thursday’s episode of “Proyekto Pilipino.” A Reader’s Digest condensed version of the discussion may whet your appetite to watch the whole thing. What we have is a collision between old ways (the seasonal growing of produce, for example) with new habits (consumer demands for certain produce to be available all year around; not to mention more and more buying commercially prepared food, which means buyers needing vegetables of consistent quality and price on a consistent basis). There remains a disjoint when it comes to the habits and practices of farmers and those of wholesale buyers and the public.
To give a sample of the discussion strictly on tomatoes: one opportunity (and challenge) is to find different parts of the country that can have different growing seasons and thus cumulatively provide a consistent, year-round supply, while preventing the boom-and-bust that happens because of everyone everywhere scrambling to be part of the same growing season; not to mention the question whether some places such as the uplands, wouldn’t be better off focusing on more lucrative specialized crops suitable to their areas, leaving tomato-growing to the lowlands. Another challenge (and opportunity) exists for farmers to get a better grasp of the needs of wholesale buyers, who would be willing to invest in logistics if they could be assured (by the farmers) of consistent output. As it is, where abroad there might be three interventions in the supply chain (aggregators buying from many farmers; logistics to get them from one place to another; and warehousing to keep them in peak condition throughout), here at home some estimate the interventions (and thus those getting a cut) to range from as high as eight to a minimum of four (an example: farmers sell at the barangay level; barangay buyers to city suppliers, to then, say, provincial and regional aggregators, with the transport and storage at each step demanding a cut).
What was refreshing about the discussion was that for once there wasn’t the usual fiesta of finger-pointing and conspiracy theorizing; instead, it involved a sober, even clinical, analysis of where the system is outmoded and can be improved and where slowly, perhaps, different groups are learning to work with each other (including government: for example, the Department of Agriculture has been lending a hand with logistics to help the farmers get their products to buyers).
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion came from the perspective of one of the guests who operates institutional canteens and thus needs to buy produce in bulk. One major change to their business model was to become reacquainted with the seasonality of produce, adjusting their menus in turn. To be sure, this still leaves the problem of consistency of supply for vegetables for which there is a year-round demand (the holy trinity of our cooking, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, for example), and this, in turn, has led to buyers and those trying to help the producers talking to each other to ramp up knowledge.
But this leaves the problem of the here and now which brings us back to last week’s topic, which those involved in the produce business seem to think will be back as a main topic in at least a couple of weeks: onions. To expand on some thoughts from last week, what’s at work, as you read this, is something like this. If you’ve noticed, the supply has improved and because of that, prices have gone down. That’s because the government finally gave the green light for imports. But the thing is, the government gave the go-ahead to import onions just when the domestic crop, planted a few months ago, is about to be harvested. So we run the risk of the crop of onions being harvested, only for it to be thrown away because with prices already going down, prices would then basically risk collapsing, just when the investments of farmers in their onion crop, are ready. And it’s not as if we have the means to store the onions for very long: not to mention that there will be frantic farmers desperate to cut their losses by harvesting early to get ahead of the looming collapse of prices. As I mentioned last week, if you harvest early, the onions don’t last as long.
I won’t make a habit of it, but since this is literally a gut issue, you might want to check out our next episode on tomatoes and onions, tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. on The Conscience Collective channel on YouTube (where previous issues are also archived). You can also catch the new episode of “Proyekto Pilipino” on the following channels and timeslots: mySKY 955: Fridays, 7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. Jeepney TV: Sundays, 5 p.m. and Mondays, 6:30 a.m.