As the total number of coronavirus cases in the Philippines nears the 1 million mark, escalating food prices are also burning holes in the Filipino consumers’ pockets. Research group Ibon Foundation claims that food inflation in the Philippines reached 6.6% this January and increased to 7.0% in February, and that meat and vegetable prices rose in several months with an unprecedented speed over the last ten years. Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), a peasant organisation in the Philippines, observed the prices of pork over the last three years: in January 2019, a kilo of pork belly cost around ₱220 ($4.55 USD); in January 2020, ₱230 ($4.76 USD); and in January 2021, ₱400 ($8.27 USD). In comparison, the minimum wage in Metro Manila has stayed at ₱537 ($11.11 USD) since 2018.
Last February, President Rodrigo Duterte set a 60-day price cap on pork and chicken, to deter price manipulation by meat traders. In protest of the price cap, hog raisers and market vendors halted selling pork, referring to it as a ‘pig holiday’. As the price cap expired in the first week of April, President Duterte issued Executive Order (EO) 128 which would reduce tariffs on imported meat from 40% to 5%-10% for a year. Farmers’ associations are once more threatening another ‘pig holiday’ in defiance of EO 128.
Philippine legislators and pork producers have decried the issuance of EO 128, stating it would destroy the local hog raising industry. Nicanor Briones, Vice President for Luzon of the Pork Producers Federation of the Philippines (ProPork), stated that meat importers already profit considerably compared to local producers with the 40% tariff in place. Statistics from Ibon Foundation echo ProPork’s statement, as Ibon registers the retail profit rate of meat importers in 2019 at 104%. KMP chairperson and former congressman Rafael Mariano asserted that lowering the tariff would benefit meat importers, but would lead backyard producers to bankruptcy, and would consequently create more problems for local meat production.
The steep rise in the price of pork is attributed to the African Swine Fever (ASF), which hit the Philippines in 2019. The ASF is “a highly contagious, generalized disease of pigs” with a near-100% mortality rate affecting pigs of all ages. The first outbreak was in Rizal, a province east of Metro Manila. In an attempt to curb the outbreak, the Department of Agriculture implemented the 1-7-10 policy, where hogs within 1-kilometer from the site of the outbreak would be culled. Hogs within 7 kilometers would be placed under surveillance and undergo testing, and hogs within 10 kilometers would be monitored. As of April 15, the Department of Agriculture (DA) has reported 40 provinces in the country affected by the ASF. Filipino farmers have lost over 3 million pigs to the ASF, according to a DA memorandum. KMP estimates the total losses of small and backyard producers at $1.16B USD.
The Plague of Import Liberalization
Import liberalization and cutting trade tariffs are part of the neoliberal framework espoused by global institutions. Mariano likens the deregulation of meat imports to the Rice Trade Liberalization (RTL) law of 2019, when rice imports brought down the farm prices of locally produced rice so much that farmers were brought to ruin.
The government’s move to increase imports and lower tariffs on meat products would only serve foreign interests and benefit big meat importers and traders. Ibon Foundation notes that the influx of imported meat might not drive retail prices down due to a monopoly on the meat market. In addition, it would leave local swine breeders drowning in deficits.
Food Security and Pro-People Solutions
Soaring food prices in the Philippines expose the intertwining issues of the deflating purchasing power of Filipinos, increasing joblessness, and government negligence amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
KMP stresses the need for a long-term and significant program for agricultural development and local food production. According to KMP, the government has allotted only around $2 billion out of the total $97.3 billion national budget for 2021, which reflects how the agricultural sector is neglected. The DA has offered financial assistance to vendors who intend to buy freezers to sell imported meat, which could have gone to backyard producers instead to bolster local production. Rather than offering loans, the government should subsidize hog raisers who were barely breaking even and are already debt-ridden due to the ASF. Apart from government subsidy, ProPork and KMP are demanding indemnification of $200 per ASF-infected pig, and the establishment of sufficient facilities for border inspection.
“Food sufficiency is not an option, it is an imperative,” declared Mariano. Underlying the issue of soaring food prices are questions of food security and self-sufficiency, both of which cannot be attained without genuine land reform and a shift in the economic policies of the Philippines. Mariano added, “Pursuance of the promotion of food self-sufficiency as a general strategy should be in the framework of the people’s sovereign will and sovereign right.”
Dania Reyes is an activist and a student from the University of the Philippines Diliman.The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.