Home Around The World Onions like cocaine: few, expensive and unobtainable

Onions like cocaine: few, expensive and unobtainable


April Lyka Biorrey-Nobis, 28, from Iloilo, Philippines, got married on 21 January. Dressed in white as per the best tradition, but in her hands a bouquet of onions. It made the rounds on social media, before landing on the front pages of newspapers as the latest, crazed proof of what is happening in the Philippine agricultural market: skyrocketing prices of all products, with an unprecedented surge in onions, which have become the country’s real ‘yellow gold’, a smuggled commodity, removed from restaurant menus not even if they were caviar, eliminated from family kitchens, where they are the fundamental ingredient.

Onions like cocaine

It is therefore not surprising that April Lyka chose sparkling red onions instead of flowers (sold at gold prices on a par with yellow ones), turning them into succulent and precious favours for guests.
Caused by the onion price hike, now a topic of constant debate in Parliament and the Senate, and a priority for the government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr: the impact of natural disasters, increased post-pandemic demand, and the shortage of cold storage.


At the end of December, onions were spotted on some supermarket shelves at 13 dollars per kilo. The narcos did not miss the opportunity and so onions have already created the illegal business: a gigantic racket worth millions of euros. The vegetable that makes one cry becomes a commodity of criminal business, almost like cocaine. In the last few months, the police have made more than 150 seizures of smuggled onion shipments (aeroplane crews are particularly involved) with a value of around 10 million dollars. Last month, sacks of onions were discovered in containers that were officially supposed to be carrying clothing.
In an attempt to curb price inflation (declared a ‘state of emergency’ by the Manila government), President Marcos, who has also summoned the Agriculture portfolio to himself, authorised the importation of 21,060 tonnes of onions in recent days, which has provoked the ire of farmers, who see foreign onions arriving just at the time of the national harvest. At the peak of quotations even on the black exchange, onions have come to cost more than the minimum daily wage in the Manila region. Luxury products have also become eggs, while sugar and salt are disappearing from supermarket shelves. ‘First sugar, then salt, then onions, we are going to end up with a parliamentary committee of enquiry on all ingredients used in cooking,’ lamented Senator Grace Poe, who like many senior politicians is clamouring for an ad hoc Agriculture Minister to deal with the emergency. Senator Imee Marcos, sister of the president, on the other hand, lashed out at the farmers’ union, accusing them of ‘an abysmal lack of planning’.


According to Senator Cynthia Villar, who chairs the Agriculture Committee in the upper house, it is the consortia of large producers that are speculating on the vegetable and has vented the hypothesis of warehouses full of onions being kept off the market to artificially raise prices: ‘Small and medium-sized producers have been wiped out by the pandemic and natural disasters and now the big ones have complete control over supply, so they create an artificial demand to drive up prices. On the other hand, the price of eggs (up to ten pesos per unit) has been ‘doped’ by rising feed costs and the bird flu epidemic at the end of 2021. To prevent this from being compounded by the effect of an out-of-control food black market, the authorities have imposed extremely tight border controls. It is now possible to bring vegetables, particularly onions, into the country in modest quantities for ‘personal use’ only and in any case to be subject to a form of ‘quarantine’. For larger quantities, a new ‘sanitary and phytosanitary’ authorisation from the Bureau of Plant Industry is required.