Sugar and salt shortage worsens Philippines’ food supply woes

MANILA – A top soft-drinks maker with no sugar, a burger joint out of onions and kitchens short of salt underscore the dependence of the Philippines on food imports and illustrate some of the cost pressures fueling inflation.

The country not only buys sugar, salt and garlic from abroad, but also imports a raft of other food commodities such as rice, wheat, corn and soybean meal, and that’s after global farm prices surged to a record this year on the back of lower world supply caused by drought, heat and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Inflation in the Philippines is near the highest level since 2018, partly because of elevated food and transport costs. While more expensive imports have contributed to the rise, local drivers such as devastating storms, import policy reversals and hoarding have also played their part.

Food policy has become such a core concern for the government that the President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has taken on the role of agriculture secretary and is proposing a 44 per cent hike in the department’s budget to prioritize farming.

The Philippines is one of the Asian countries most at risk from volatile farm prices because food makes up almost a half its inflation basket and the nation imports a hefty chunk of its needs, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

In a clear sign of the sugar shortage, Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines Inc. said in August it had halted operations at four plants because there’s no sweetener available. Juan Lorenzo Tañada, its corporate and regulatory affairs director, told senators that the beverage industry needs at least 450,000 tons of premium refined bottler-grade sugar to operate at full capacity for the rest of the year, and imports would prevent companies from laying off workers.

Burger King Philippines said in a social media post last month that it’s offering customers extra lettuce and tomato in exchange for onions, which it said are “a bit hard to come by these days.” “The food items having shortages are very close to the Filipino kitchen,” said political science associate professor Jean Franco from the University of the Philippines. “People will judge Marcos based on whether the prices actually go down.”