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'It's like gold': Onions now cost more than meat in the Philippines

A worker rides an overloaded tricycle carrying bags of onions in Manila, Philippines on Sept. 23, 2015.
Aaron Favila
A worker rides an overloaded tricycle carrying bags of onions in Manila, Philippines on Sept. 23, 2015.

Updated January 12, 2023 at 8:17 AM ET

A pound of red onions now costs more than a pound of beef in the Philippines.

It's a problem because onions are a staple in Filipino cuisine.

The country is facing a national onion shortage as inflation hikes prices and climate change continues to wreak havoc on crops.

As of Wednesday, local red onions cost as much as $4.50 per pound — 550 Philippine pesos per kg — according to the Department of Agriculture.

"Beef Rump" costs up to $3.96 per pound — while a whole chicken goes for up to $3.99.

Onions are in almost every Filipino dish, said Marilene Montemayor, a senior assistant at the World Bank focused on East Asia and the Pacific. Montemayor works in Washington, D.C. but is from the Philippines. "How can you taste the food without onions?"

She said her family in the Philippines, whom she calls often, has been complaining about onion prices since Christmas.

"It's like gold," said Montemayor of the now-elusive allium.

Onions have become a big headache

Onion prices in the Philippines have been far above the world average since the fall.

Last Friday, the Department of Agriculture approved a plan to import 21,060 metric tons of onions – equivalent to 23,215 U.S. tons – to address the national onion shortage and pull prices down.

The imported yellow and red onions are set to arrive on or before Jan. 27, according to Department of Agriculture deputy spokesman Rex Estoperez, who said it is a "temporary" solution.

The shortage comes even as local growers produced 23.30 metric tons of onions in the third quarter of 2022, up from 22.92 metric tons during the same period in 2021, according to Philippines Statistics Authority.

For the Philippines, which consumes around 17,000 metric tons of onions a month, importing onions is not anything new. It typically buys from China and other Southeast Asian countries.

But there are worries that importing onions will affect local onion growers as they prepare for harvest, which typically begins in February and lasts till April, according to Danilo Fausto, president of the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food.

It's also to do with climate change

Along with inflation, climate change has been a concern.

As an island country in a tropical region, the Philippines is especially at risk for rising temperatures and increased rainfall, which disrupt crop growth.

In August, a severe tropical storm in the Philippines forced schools to close the day after classes resumed for in-person learning after a shift to online learning during the pandemic.

"Developing countries are more vulnerable, lose more when these climate shocks hit, and have fewer resources to cope with the adverse effects of these shocks," Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said at a November summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Government officials in the Philippines are now hoping onion imports will tide the country over for the coming months.

One point of solace? Eggs in the Philippines are cheaper than they are elsewhere. A dozen eggs now costs around $1.92 in the Philippines, which is lower than the U.S. average, $3.59 in November.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.