Who’s cutting onions? Understanding the Tearjerker Price Hike of Onion During “Ber” Season

by Lemuel San Gabriel, Sheena Marie Alingig, and Maria Glenda Villena

TEARJERKER. The price of onions per kilo at a local supermarket in Los Baños last November 2022. (Photo by Pamela A. Custodio)

Halos ka-presyo na ng mga ulam. Hindi ka pa naghihiwa ng sibuyas, naiiyak ka na.” (Onions are almost as expensive as chicken or pork. I feel like crying and I haven’t even started cutting onions).”

Filipinos are known to celebrate Christmas as early as September, and this year seems to be extra special since the government has relaxed COVID restrictions. But despite the festive season, a lot of Filipinos are bracing for an even more expensive hurdle ahead, with the price of onions, a basic commodity, skyrocketing these days.

Aling Marie, who goes to the Las Piñas Public market with 1,000 pesos in hand every week has added an extra 200 pesos to her budget to buy onions since it’s a staple in her kitchen, along with garlic and ginger. She said staying on budget seems to be an impossible task and she’ll be shedding more tears on New Year’s Day.

In Metro Manila markets, the price of local red onion last September 30, 2022, averaged at P200/kilo. On December 30, the Department of Agriculture’s Price Monitoring system reported what the public has been dreading: local red onions reached an astronomical price of P550-700/kilo while local white onions hit a staggering P600-800 price per kilo, overwhelming millions of Filipinos like Aling Marie.

Hugot lines and memes abound on social media to somehow ease the frustrations of consumers, with some jokingly requesting for onions as an exchange gift or “pasalubong” from OFW relatives.

This perennial problem is no laughing matter, though. A kilo of onion during the “ber” months is a far cry from the price of onion in March of every year, which is usually pegged at around P60/kilo. What is worse, smugglers are taking advantage of the dire situation of Filipino farmers and consumers. Reportedly, it can be recalled that in October 2022, the Department of Agriculture (DA) called for an investigation when imported white onions began to flood markets despite the non-issuance of an importation permit.

As seen in Figure 1, there is no available data on the price of imported white onions for the month of August. But come October of 2022, consumers needed to shell out P320 to get a kilo of this in-demand bulb. DA allotted 100M pesos to boost onion production through various interventions such as nitrogen fertilizers, drip irrigations and enhancing frequent shallow cultivations between onion rows. But how come all these efforts fail to address the root cause of this root crop problem?

Figure 1. Onion Price Monitoring Trend in Metro Manila (in peso)

Harvest season and where onions are produced in the country

Reden Rojas, owner and operator of The Murang Gulay Shop, an online store that “aims to provide fresh and affordable Gulay to everyone thru delivery or pick up,” is all too familiar with the price trend of onions in the Philippines. News reports that generalize traders and middlemen as “price manipulators” are unfair, he said. For him, the prices of onions are affected mainly by three factors: Onion harvest season, import permit issuance, and supply chain issues.

The last two quarters of the year are simply not the harvest seasons for local onions. According to the Philippine Onion Roadmap 2021-2025, planting season is usually scheduled to start in September while harvest season occurs mainly between February to May. The Philippines produces the most amount of onions during the first quarter of the year (Jan-March) for both Bermuda (Red Creole and Yellow Granex) and Native varieties (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Quarterly volume of production of onions PH, 2021-2022 (metric tons)

The onion capital of the Philippines is in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon. It is the biggest producer of Bermuda onions in the first quarter of 2022 (130,546.42 metric tons) while the Ilocos region is the top producer of Native onions (29,428.26 metric tons) from January-September 2022 (Figure 3). Citing the Philippine Statistics Authority’s Survey of Food Demand, the Philippines consumed 2.34 (kg/capita) of onions in 2016. Fast forward to 2022, Filipinos have reportedly consumed around 20,000 tons of onions per month showing an increasing demand for onions yearly.

Figure 3. Volume of Onion Production by Top Producing Regions in the Country

However, local supply is not able to keep up. Note that historically, from October to December of every year, the production of the in-demand Bermuda variety falls drastically. On the other hand, there is minimal production of Native onions observed in the last quarter of 2021. This is why Rojas reiterated the importance of proper import projection of red and white onions during months wherein local onion production is low, to avoid onion shortage and price increases.  According to Tridge, the Philippines imported onions from China (46.1%) , followed by the Netherlands (37.4%) and India (12.8%) in 2021.

To further help alleviate the problem, Rojas said the government should not only continue to encourage local farmers to plant the crop off-season but directly invest in them. He identified Nueva Vizcaya, Mindoro, and Pangasinan as areas with lands that are suitable for off-season onion farming. 

Are typhoons to blame, too?

Typhoons are often used by some vendors to justify the increase in the price of onions. It can be recalled that Typhoons Lando which hit Luzon in October 2015 and Nona in December 2015 greatly affected onion supply and price in the country during that time However, Rojas observed that in 2022, by the time strong typhoons hit the onion-producing regions in Luzon (Figure 4), most of the local onions have already been harvested and are in cold storage facilities which then points to supply chain issues.

Figure 4. Provinces within onion producing regions affected by typhoons from July-October 2022

“There is a need to regulate the standard price of onions in major markets in major cities but the supplies should be from the government. Once na mangyari ‘to, asahan na kahit off-season, nasa P80-120 lang ang onion sa merkado. KADIWA market is a good project and initiative pero band-aid solution lamang ito since it only caters to a small number of people,” added Rojas.

Kadiwa Market is a marketing initiative of the DA, implemented through the Agribusiness and Marketing Assistance (AMAS), which seeks to empower the farming community by providing a direct and effective farm-to-consumer food supply chain. The enhancement of the implementation of KADIWA resulted to new innovative platforms and modalities such as:

  • KADIWA Retailing Service
  • KADIWA Express
  • KADIWA On-Wheels

Former DA Secretary Manny Piñol  however, has also identified and recommended the need for a large-scale marketing and distribution system spearheaded by the government. Through a Facebook post on December 30, he urged Filipinos to refrain from pointing fingers and instead appealed for understanding on how the onion supply chain system works. He revealed that by the time onions reach the household, the commodity has already been handled by several people, including powerful traders that have the ability to control the system. If the government will step up and work closely with farmers (with the assurance that produce would be bought at a guaranteed and reasonable price),  establish buying stations and cold storage facilities and then supply food outlets that will be strategically placed in urban cities all over the country, prices of commodities would not fluctuate drastically.

Climate change vs onions

Another critical problem that poses a big threat to onion supply is armyworm infestation which has been affecting onion farmers in Nueva Ecija, Pangasinan, and surrounding areas since 2016. Onion armyworm (Spodoptera exigua H.) is a destructive insect pest causing a lot of damage economically to the farmers. It is feared that this will only grow worse due to climate change. In a report written by journalist Geela Garcia, scientists have warned that crop-damaging pests will only become more destructive as climate change brings even hotter weather and more unseasonable rains since warming weather creates conditions for insects to migrate and breed.

The government and stakeholders are trying to address the problems and are aiming to increase the country’s onion production from 229,539 metric tons to 279,270 metric tons to achieve self-sufficiency by 2025. The DA’s Philippine Onion Industry Roadmap 2021-2025 details the proposed steps to tackle the issues, such as climate resiliency, onion price, quality assurance, and support for onion farmers to name a few. Until then, it appears that just like Aling Marie, Filipinos would have to wipe their eyes and endure the sting of onions in the years to come.