Onion importers given until Jan. 27 to land their shipments

ONION importers cleared to ship in 21,060 metric tons (MT) of the produce have been given until Jan. 27 to bring in their cargoes in order not to unduly interfere with market conditions during the domestic onion harvest, the Department of Agriculture (DA) said.

According to a letter to the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) from Agriculture Senior Undersecretary dated Jan. 6, applications were opened for sanitary and phytosanitary import clearances (SPSICs) on Jan. 9 for imported yellow and red onions. Applications will be entertained until Jan. 13.  

“Upon issuance of SPSIC for the import of fresh onions, all importers are given until Jan. 27, 2023 for their shipments to arrive in the country,” according to the letter.

Farmers have complained about government import plans that coincide with the domestic harvest, which raises the available supply and depresses the prices farmers are able to obtain for their produce.

Agriculture deputy spokesman Rex C. Estoperez told reporters on Tuesday that the hard deadline of Jan. 27 is an attempt to strike a balance between the need to address the onion deficit and the interests of the farmers during the “peak season” for harvesting onions. 

Authorized for import are 17,100 MT of red onions and 3,960 MT yellow onions.

“Shipments arriving beyond the last day of arrival shall be considered invalid and BPI shall impose ‘return to origin’ as final disposition for these shipments,” according to the letter, which added that no extension will be allowed.  

Mr. Estoperez said the preliminary plan is to distribute the imports to Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao on a 50%, 25% and 25% basis, respectively, with the government as a potential sole purchaser.

According to the DA’s price monitoring on Tuesday, red and white onion prices in wet markets were at about P420 and P600 per kilo.

Mr. Estoperez said the imported onions will likely be priced at “P100 to P150, but we don’t know if this will be the retail or landed cost,” adding that a price cap is also being considered for imported onions.

Jayson H. Cainglet, executive director of the Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura, said that instead of considering new onion imports, the DA should focus on addressing the gap between farmgate prices and retail prices, which point to pricing irregularities somewhere in the supply chain after the produce leaves the farms.

“The imports will only result in depressed farmgate prices of onions, with the onset of the harvest season. Another round of onion imports will not guarantee reduced retail prices if the DA remains useless in addressing the gap between the farmgate and retail prices,” Mr. Cainglet said.

“Onion farmers will… now face a ‘man-made’ calamity — the government’s decision to allow onion imports during harvest time,” Federation of Free Farmers Chairman Leonardo Q. Montemayor said in a statement.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III called the government import plan “a major setback” for farmers.

“We should not fall into that trap,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “The move could negatively affect the income and business of farmers who are about to harvest (their) onions.”

“The DA should no longer import onions. There is no need to import onions since it’s harvest season,” he added.

Also questioning the timing of the import order, he added: “If we authorize imports now, the (shipment will arrive) maybe weeks or months later. That will coincide with the availability of locally-produced onions.”

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, proposed on Tuesday the creation of a task force to deter food smugglers and hoarders, blaming them for high prices.

“Obviously, there is a shortfall in the supply of onions, but prices continue to climb even with the entry of additional supply in the market,” he said in a statement, noting that his recent purchase of half a kilogram of onions cost nearly P500.

The proposed task force, Mr. Gatchalian said, should be headed by the DA in coordination with the National Bureau of Investigation.

“According to the data I’ve acquired, the conviction rate remains low, and that’s something we will look into in the ways and means committee. We plan to identify which products are being imported and the amount of tax being paid, as well as the number of people who have been charged,” he said.

“We will also look at the problems encountered by the Bureau of Customs (BoC),” he added, noting that if no perpetrators are punished, the law will continuously be violated with impunity. — Ashley Erika O. Jose and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan