Most Expensive Onions, 70 Tons Trashed, Agri Failure!


THE Philippines’ farming economy is at a crossroads — the record-breaking prices of sugar and onion highlight the increasingly delicate crop supply problems in an increasing number of essential food products as stagnating yield, lower soil quality and extreme weather alter their supply pattern. At the same time, food product demands continue to grow in the face of a rising population, wealth and consumption. The resulting supply-demand imbalance is becoming structural for many food products under the status quo.

When food importation becomes a norm

Any solution addressing the supply bottleneck will likely take years to bear fruit, even if appropriate technological and remedial adoption breakthrough measures are starting to be implemented today. The median age of farmers today is 57, and the average farm plot has shrunk to 1.3 hectares, from nearly 3 hectares in the 1960s (majority owned farmlands today are further subdivided into 2,000 to 3,000 sqm plots after they are transferred to the current generation). Productivity and financial management are key concerns, by or for farmers, even beyond finance alone. The myriad of problems facing the Philippine agricultural sector is daunting.

One should note that any structural tightness in the food supply could shift the long-term trajectory of agricultural prices to the upside, with implications extending beyond agriculture to consumers, inflation and social stability.

The supply of onion and sugar highlights the impact of climate change and supply uncertainty.

Onions are cool-season plants taking 3 to 4 months from planting to harvest. The onions’ planting usually takes place from October to January, while harvesting is conducted mostly from February to May. The key risk to onion growth is insect infestation, particularly armyworms and excessive soil moisture triggered by heavy rain that facilitates anthracnose fungal growth. The shifting pattern of the typhoon season extending to the end of the year adversely affects the planting schedule of onion farmers.

The sugar industry faces similar problems from the weather change. The cane milling starts in October and ends in May. Too much rain during the milling season affects cane harvesting and hurts the sugar synthesis of the cane. These factors affect sugar production. The continuous rain in Western Visayas since late December explained why the country suffered from a record high price of sugar at the supposed peak production period of the crop.

The Philippines is ranked among the most vulnerable nations to climate change. So, what happens today on onion and sugar should serve as a wake-up call on the vulnerable state of the country regarding food security. The country’s agricultural production system is very much weather-dependent, and extreme weather from climate change easily causes havoc on food production.

Ensuring market stability needs accurate production forecasts.

While addressing the daunting production challenges is the long-term solution to the country’s food security problem, the immediate policy challenge is to stabilize the food price in the market, and increasing importation will be the norm for many food products in the immediate future. Therefore, timing the importation to prevent a price spiral when products run low and from colliding with the harvest time depressing farmgate price is critical in policy implementation. The changing weather pattern shifting the production schedule compounds the timing decision challenge, and the only solution is to decide the import schedule based on real-time production forecasts. However, the traditional way of deciding importation based on historical lean months pattern is insufficient to ensure that both the consumers and farmers are protected when the government decides to import.

The comment of former Agriculture secretary William Dar that the onion shortage could have been avoided if the current government had allowed imports back in August of last year highlights the importance of a timely decision based on an accurate production forecast.

Good commodity forecasts and forward booking or import purchasing skills of experienced, proven management by key people, teams or councils are key to short-term management of price. Agricultural integrated re-planning is important for national food security.

Smart crop monitoring provides a more timely and accurate production forecast.

Agricultural production forecasts have a long history around the world. People understand the importance of crop production forecasts as agriculture shifted from subsistence to commercial as urbanization moved people away from agriculture. Earlier agricultural extension workers went around the field during the growing season to estimate the growing condition, harvesting timing, and crop size. Technological advancements later improved the data collection using aerial and satellite base crop estimates. With the latest smart crop monitoring system using drones that get more granular datapoints avoiding clouds hurting satellite and aerial-based surveillance, plus the more accurate AI-based visual inspection. Today’s technology can provide an accurate picture of production forecasts not possible just a decade ago. In addition, the information is closer to real-time, with fewer errors at the end.

When importing many foods becomes a norm, getting an accurate production forecast, both in quantity and timing, is essential to protect consumers and farmers. The idea is to use modern smart agriculture technology to have a more accurate harvest quantity and timing prediction, thus avoiding importation and local production reaching the market at the same time. Such technology is already around, and successful technology adoption should be the focus today.

We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks ( A similar version was also published in ManilaTimes.

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