Davos warned of a ‘polycrisis’; PH focused on ... onions




The Manila Times



THE recent World Economic Forum in Davos was not exclusively about schmoozing and networking and deal-making among the world’s political and economic elite. Or techno and corporate babble. It warned of the great and destabilizing dangers that the world at large faces: a bloody and long-dragging war, inflation wreaking havoc on nations, the rise of autocracy and the many other threats to economic stability and global peace. The ravages from climate change were cited as the clear and present danger, the existential threat to humanity itself. These two events were unspoken of, but were on everyone’s mind. The grievous and unimagined toll of Brexit on Britain. The post-Brexit environment led to the choice of a clueless prime minister who governed for a total of 44 tumultuous days, double-digit inflation, strikes of health sector workers. Britain, the great imperial power and the mother nation of the so-called Commonwealth of Nations, on the wane. The historic ascendancy to the leadership of Rishi Sunak, the son of immigrants from India, a former colony, has been overshadowed by Sunak’s often flailing efforts to contain various crises. The other unexpected event, that has exacted a heavier toll on the world than Brexit, was Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24, 2021 invasion of Ukraine, done without provocation and launched in pursuit of Putin’s revanchist dreams. Davos resurrected a hardly invoked term — “polycrisis” — which means many intractable problems rocking the world on multiple fronts at the same time. News reports said the term gained prominence after Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission, used the word in 2016. So alarmed were the nabobs at Davos of the multiple challenges faced by the world at the moment that the term “polycrisis” was adopted in the annual report of the World Economic Forum to dramatize the need to respond with urgency. But once we tune out of the “polycrisis” taken seriously by the world’s political and economic elite to focus on the domestic front, we see a sea change, a dramatic break from the topics discussed with utmost seriousness at Davos, which are also the urgent themes upending, roiling the broader world. We see the two chambers of Congress, with utmost seriousness and intensity, hold legislative inquiries on … onions. Disappearing onions. Overpriced onions. Cheap onions that vanished at the Kadiwa outlets. Smuggled onions. Onions that disappeared from our favorite sisig. Onions that had been reduced to barely visible and soggy slivers on local hamburgers. Onions that are at the moment (through this is mainly fleeting) the bane of our national existence. Not to be outdone, the announcement of the executive branch to clear 24,000 metric tons of onion importation was the screaming headline of newspapers for days, the topic of coffee shop chatter. The weight of critical decision-making rested on onions. Primetime TV spiced up the onion-centric stories, the lead in the nightly news. Onion reporting has been basically lazy, but attention-catching, television journalism. While global leaders were preoccupied with existential threats such as climate change, we have seen that in the Visayas and Mindanao with the recent killer floods, the Philippine conversation could not get enough of … onions. I am not saying that onions should be missed out in the national conversation because the shortage of onions is unimportant. That is not the point. The point is this. There is a short supply of onions, which leads to the inevitable overpricing. Same with pork, same with eggs, same with sugar. Same with most vegetables. Prices of yellow corn, which is 60 percent of animal feeds and aqua feeds. Corn prices have been surging since the middle of last year due to the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war. Fertilizer prices are up three times from the 2020 prices. There are no two commodities that are more critical to food production than yellow corn and fertilizer. Speaking of domestic food problems, the onion shortage is far below the food sector’s weighty problems. What is most worrisome is the failure of reckless rice importation to provide relief to rice consumers, with the profits cornered by traders and importers. There is no figure yet on total imports for 2022, but the total is expected to top 3 million metric tons, like the greed-driven rice imports in 2019. We are killing a proud rice-growing culture and killing the small rice farmers with little pass-on benefits to rice consumers. In the overall equation of food shortages and overpricing, onions, something we could do without on a daily basis, should be in the lower tier of our priorities. It is in that context that the national preoccupation with onions — those discussions tragically taken in isolation — truly fall into the “Only in the Philippines” category. And very dispiriting. The shortage of onions has its roots and this is in the overall state of Philippine agriculture, which is sinking deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. And what the two chambers of Congress should focus on is the big picture of agriculture overall, from rice to yellow corn to sugar to pork, to eggs and down to the lesser subsectors. The onion is part of agriculture’s lesser subsectors. In most major economies, discussions on food shortages, surging food prices, the available surplus foodstuffs traded in the open market, countries on the verge of famine and many other food-related issues are big, leading with this question. Do we adopt efficiency — that still assumes there are enough critical food commodities in the open market and food importation remains a sound policy for food security? Or do we adopt resilience, which says that focus should be on domestic food production because of the uncertainty of relying on efficiency? We are not doing that kind of serious policy discussion. We remain fixated on … onions. But then again, what do you expect of a polity often preoccupied with trivial policy pursuits?