"Now back to the basics."
Many Filipino families have this practice of entering the door of a new abode with the pater familia bringing a bag of rice, the mother a jar of salt, and the children some sugar and some cooking oil.
The food basics, they are called. Bigas, asin, asukal (from the Spanish azucar), at mantika (again, manteca).
The Filipino diet revolves around these basics. Protein in fish is preserved by salt, which produces staples like daing and bagoong. From far-off Batanes to Tawi-Tawi, flying fish is dried by the day and anchovies preserved for months. Eaten with rice, the pangs of hunger are remedied.
What Filipino drinks coffee without sugar? The day starts with a mug or glass of piping hot-coffee laced with sugar (brown or panocha for Tagalogs, refined white for Negrenses).
And cooking oil, to fry the daing, or an occasional pork liempo for bagnet on special days.
For the so-called “educated” crowd, the news on the economic front these days revolve around the supposedly excessive cost of the sports arena built for the SEA Games, and how to maintain the facilities thereafter; the quarterly GDP growth; and the “failure,” if at all, of the Build, Build, Build cornerstone of the Duterte administration. Not to forget, Sen. Ping Lacson’s investigative discoveries of pork hidden in the interstices of the House-approved budget for 2020.
The headlines of course are reserved for the “war on drugs” starring the newly-minted czarina overseeing it, and the guessing game on the eventual denouement, given the Byzantine whispers about her “powers” and her responsibilities, again … if any.
Now back to the basics. As far as the ordinary Filipino is concerned, quotidian economics is all about bigas, asin, asukal at mantika.
The palay farmer cries about the low, low buying prices for the produce of his back-breaking labor on small plot of land. Those who claim to speak for the lowly farmer point to the less-than-a-year-old Rice Tariffication Law, which opened the floodgates for uncontrolled imports of milled rice from Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, India and Myanmar.
The once-upon-a-not-so-distant regulator, NFA, has been castrated. Even the phyto-sanitary permits that are supposed to somehow control the excess of imported rice has been taken away from it and given to the Bureau of Plant Industry headed by a barangay captain from Davao.
Ramon and its preceding crop devastators hit palay farmers just as they harvest once-precious crop now debased in value to lower than break-even. Still and all, urban consumers are relieved, because their daily carbo-loader is cheaper compared to a year ago when prices hit the roof, courtesy of quarreling rice industry overlords in government now mercifully no longer around. But damage has been considerably done, and both the executive and the legislature “cured” rice inflation by tariffication hastily enabled.
The impact on our future food security is yet to be fathomed with conflicting claims from the economic managers who caution the public about jumping to conclusions which the “champions” of the farmers decry, while the agriculture department is beset by a crescendo of problems descending upon their newly-appointed secretary deluged by several baptisms of fire.
But it’s not all about rice.
The Department of Health, seeing that “sin” taxes have somehow curbed the appetite for deadly soft drinks and its sugar “poison,” proposed a levy on “salt.” If a Roman emperor could levy a tax on salt, why not Duterte, they posited in their minds?
The howl from most every Filipino was deafening. The DOH, plagued as it is with polio and dengue epidemics, beat a hasty retreat.
And yet, too much rice and too much salt really pose health problems. White, milled rice turns into sugar in the digestive system, which in turn is a cause for diabetes, illness that bedevils hundreds of millions throughout the universe. And excessive salt intake, from daing, bagoong, patis and local toyo of course, damages the kidneys in time.
Damaged kidneys and renal failure is one of the top ailments of Filipinos, whether they have one or two kidneys, the first having been gouged out and sold due to grinding poverty.
Of course, both rice and salt are considered by economists as having “inelastic” demand, which means that people will not consume more or less rice or salt regardless of fluctuations on their price.
So it is relatively simple, for instance, to predict the annual consumer demand for rice. It is a function of population growth, not price. But tell that to the palay farmer who cannot fathom why the heavens have fallen on the price of his crop.
And if imports are the culprit for the low price of palay, does anybody else know that we also import salt? Yes, Virginia, we import mostly from Australia. Even the salt beds of Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte which produce fine salt are mixed with imported ground salt from Australia, “kasi mas mura.”
Pati pala asin ini-import. Every Metro Manilan knows of course that the salt beds of Paranaque and Las Pinas have since been converted into residential and commercial land.
But wait, some economic managers also want “unli” importation of sugar, because the fields of Negros, Bukidnon, Batangas and Tarlac produce high-priced cane sugar, which impacts on the cost of producing manufactured or processed food products.
Mas mura ang imported, whether rice, salt, sugar or about everything else.
But see how the legislators immediately balk when it comes to sugar. They found it easy to react to food inflation by allowing unlimited imports of rice, but when it comes to sugar, not that fast. Their families don’t plant palay, my good friend Marlen Ronquillo, columnist for the Manila Times, would likely write, but many of our legislators are sugar barons. See the difference?
My comprovincianos from southern Laguna, or Quezon, Bicol and all over the Visayas and Mindanao decry the ever-declining price of copra. And coconut farmers are among the poorest of the countryside poor.
But why, oh why, has the price of cooking oil (now mostly from oil palm) not gone down?
Ah!, the mysteries of the price of staple commodities, which would take an entire book, or a semester of Agricultural Economics, a chapter in Macroeconomics, which I now recall having taught the current Executive Secretary and the newly-proclaimed Chief Justice.
Isn’t the future of our food staples a terrifying matter to contemplate?
Whoever takes over after Duterte must have the toughness of a Thor, the heart of a Pope Francis, and the mind of a Lee Kuan Yew. Believe me.
It’s not going to be a walk in the park, as it has not been for our exhausted President.
And we’re only talking basic staples, not traffic, not drugs, not corruption yet.
Whichever, the metrics for leadership must still be the fundamental: Character, compassion, competence.