This Week in Media (August 29 to September 2, 2022)

Salt, onions, etc. in short supply; high fuel prices hike price of goods

WHEN PRESIDENT Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appointed himself Secretary of Agriculture last June 20, he said that the problems of the sector were “severe enough” that he had to step in. He emphasized his administration’s intention to boost agriculture in his inaugural address, saying it “cries for urgent attention after years of neglect and misdirection.”

In just two months, Marcos had to prove he was man enough for both the Presidency and the worst effects of such “neglect and misdirection.” 

At the heels of the sugar importation issue, news reports citing DA undersecretaries revealed shortages of several agriculture products. Both market vendors and consumers speaking to the media raised concerns about unstable supplies and the rising costs of goods exacerbated by fuel price increases. The fuel price increase implemented last week will further add to higher costs. 

Curiously, Marcos himself has refrained from commenting on agricultural matters, leaving his Press Secretary to answer questions and issue statements of assurance to beleaguered sectors. His sister, Imee Marcos, also gets quoted by the media every time she comments about investigating what she saw as related issues to supply shortages.

But the media have remained restrained in criticizing his seeming lack of involvement in the issues he claimed he would work on. 

Salt

The Manila Bulletin reported the DA’s admission that the country imports 93 percent of its salt supply:  “an unfortunate circumstance for a country with 36,000 kilometers of shoreline,” citing poor quality control as reasons for the decline of salt production in the country.

TV Patrol enumerated the industries that rely heavily on salt, including fertilizer, medicine, and dried food and condiments. Sherrie Ann Torres mentioned in her report that most salt farms are inactive or have already been sold for conversion into subdivisions. Torres also aired a clip from the Teleradyo interview with Danilo Fausto, President of the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food. Asked by Teleradyo anchor Tony Velasquez about large-scale salt manufacturers, Fausto said none remain, as even the largest company in Pangasinan has closed. 

Fausto also pointed to the ASIN Law mandating iodization of salt as one of the reasons for slowing down production.  Since 1995 when the law was passed, salt farmers had been asking for government aid so they could iodize natural salt. Some salt producers who spoke to media said industry users like makers of bagoong prefer uniodized salt. And yet salt is essential for diet and other purposes. 

The Manila Times, Malaya, Manila Bulletin and ABS-CBN online reported the suggestions of agricultural groups and lawmakers to either amend or repeal the law.

White onion and garlic

Other crops integral to Philippine food are in short supply, as the DA admitted shortages of white onion and garlic. CNN Philippines reported figures presented by the DA in a House committee hearing on August 30, saying the latest estimates of the department and its attached agencies “are all in the red” and won’t meet the expected demand until the last quarter of the year. The report added that even the Ilocos Region, the bailiwick of Marcos and a top garlic producer, is not producing enough. Usec. Kristine Evangelista admitted in the hearing that the country is largely dependent on garlic imports.

TV Patrol, 24 Oras and Frontline Pilipinas went to public markets, noting how white onion is getting harder and harder to come by. Some vendors said they chose not to sell it as no one wants to buy one kilogram at 500 pesos.  

Fish and rice

24 Oras reported separately the scant catch of tamban fish in Mindanao seas, the projected increase in prices of bangus and other farm-raised fish and the short supply of rice in the coming months. For the latter two issues, stakeholders point to the increasing prices of feed for farmed fish, as well as the rising prices of fertilizer that has affected rice production. Once again the reports cited delays in government assistance to boost their yields. 

The Southern Philippines Deep-Sea Fishing Association (SOPHIL) pointed to existing laws prohibiting them from fishing around municipal waters, forcing them to go farther out to sea, requiring more fuel. SOPHIL told GMA-7 they expect the importation of sardines and other fish products to supplant the lack. 

Meanwhile, TV5 reported that with Typhoon Henry expected to affect weather in the country, some highland vegetable farmers in Benguet had opted to harvest their crops early. The account should encourage media to probe efforts of the government not just to boost production but to help farmers weather-proof crops against rising temperatures and intensifying storms.


Sugar importation mess

Media, following the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing on sugar importation, reported new developments, most significantly the revelation by former DA Usec. Leocadio Sebastian and former Sugar Regulatory Administration Head Hermenigildo Serafica that President Marcos was informed about the proposal to import sugar, and that he did not express any objection or reservation. Sebastian said Marcos even directed Serafica to craft a sugar importation program.

Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez, who showed up at the first hearing last August 23, had insisted that Sebastian only assumed the order to import was approved by Marcos. Rodriguez told the Senate he “purposely did not respond” to Sebastian who asked for any instruction from Marcos, as the issue was still on the president’s table.

News reports on September 1 said Rodriguez, having already skipped the second probe last August 30, would no longer attend further Senate hearings. Rodriguez said he would focus on preparing for Marcos’ upcoming foreign trips, a reason that did not sit well with some senators. 

Torres’ report on ANC’s The World Tonight noted that no less than former presidents have attended Senate probes: the late Fidel Ramos for the Smoky Mountain reclamation project and the late Benigno Aquino III for the Dengvaxia fiasco. Journalists have not asked the crucial question: How can a Palace official like Rodriguez simply ignore the Senate’s call for information? 

Should Marcos consider passing on his DA responsibilities to an official who can work on these full time? The media have yet to ask.