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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Salt and other imports

"We used to be self-sufficient."

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Did you know that about 90 percent of salt, the all-important seasoning in almost all of our meals, and a key material for industrial use is imported? 

Of the country's 600,000MT annual salt requirement, fully 550,000 come from two countries, 70 percent or 446,000MT from Australia and 20 percent or 87,000MT from China. To think that the country has one of the longest coastlines in the world and tapping just a tiny part of it for salt production can easily make us not only self-sufficient but even a major exporter of this critical item.

Actually, we used to be self-sufficient in salt and well on the way to becoming a major exporter until the 1980s. Unfortunately, for some reason, something happened along the way to the point that instead of exporting not only salt but other agricultural products, we have become net importers of many of these basic items. Instead of ramping up our production, we have become complacent, relying on short-term solutions and allowing ourselves to be sucked into that vicious importation cycle. It is time we put a stop to this default operation and get back on track to food production and security.

We are not, of course, saying that we will now do away with all agri imports. That is not possible at all. We will continue to trade in such products but it should not be to such an extent as having the majority of our requirements sourced from the outside. We note that major agricultural producers such as the US, European Union, Canada, even Russia and China import a lot of agricultural produce. But not to such an extent as ours and always balanced with the health and sustainability of local production. In fact, many of these countries heavily subsidize their agriculture, not even their membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and their adherence to the GATT rules and protocols which frowns on such undertakings has prevented them from continually breaching the rules and paying the required penalties. Instead of offering themselves to the tender mercies of the global markets and other producers, they have shielded their producers and enhanced the sustainability of their local production.        

Sadly, we have been taking the opposite route. Take salt, for example. For years, the seaside towns of Ilocos from Pangasinan to Ilocos Norte, salt making has been a major industry providing this basic staple to households and industrial users all over the country while providing jobs and revenues to the host communities. The country's largest commercial salt farm, Pacific Farms Incorporated (PFI) located in Bolinao, Pangasinan produces up to 25000MT a year in 473 hectares of foreshore land. Surrounding it are small salt farms manned by hundreds of workers. Hundreds of manual types of salt making may be found in the nearby towns of Dasol and Labrador stretching all the way to Sto. Tomas in La Union. 

The nearby provinces of Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte have their own respective "salt towns" as they have been called the most recognizable being Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte. Other small, maybe medium, manual salt-making types are also scattered across the archipelago all the way to certain provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao. However, like all the other basic food and agricultural requirements of the country, their combined production can not cope up with the demand of a fast-growing population. 

The fate of salt making has become the norm in almost all of our basic agri products and staples from rice and corn to pork and poultry to fish and fish products to vegetables and fruits to coffee and cocoa. Not even our vegetable oil requirements have been exempt from such an import-centric mindset: We are leaving our coconut industry to wilt competing with the import of heavily subsidized palm oil. 

The irony is not lost on our farmers and agri producers. Our officials have become so addicted to importation that they have become more concerned in ensuring that importers are provided all incentives and assistance such as the lowering of tariffs for pork and rice importation which definitely will further bring our producers to the brink.  

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