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Onions now cost more than meat in the Philippines

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In the Philippines, the humble onion has been dubbed the country's new gold. One kilogram, a little over 2 pounds, is selling for almost $11. The global average is around a dollar 50. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been talking to Filipinos about how this daily staple has reached such dizzying heights.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Eatery owner Armelita Rayos is whipping up an eggplant omelet. Paring knife in hand, she first prepares the ingredient that gives life to much of the Philippine cuisine - the onion.

ARMELITA RAYOS: (Speaking Filipino).

MCCARTHY: Customers tuck into her counter as she hunches over a cutting board, explaining how she's economizing in her cooking because the lowly Philippine onion is now reportedly the most expensive in the world.

RAYOS: (Speaking Filipino).

MCCARTHY: "We used to buy two or three kilos a day," she says. "Now we only use half of one because onions are 9 to $10 a kilo. And even then we just buy the small, cheaper green scallions." Her eatery sits on the perimeter of the cavernous Guadalupe Market in Makati City in metro Manila. Inside we pass the meat stalls...

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING)

MCCARTHY: ...Where the pork being pounded is about half the price of onions. Forty-five-year-old Leah Navarro has come to shop. This widow with five children tells us it would take her two days' wages in her job as a maid to buy a kilo of onions. She buys only sparingly, she says, and shrugs off the sky-high prices.

LEAH NAVARRO: The Filipina can adapt all the situation that happen, and then they think positive every day. That is the Filipina - they are strong.

MCCARTHY: So how did the price of onions become exorbitant? Well, super typhoons hit the Philippines this past year, destroying crops. Poor planning delayed onion imports. Suspicion has also fallen on alleged bad actors who may have manipulated the market through hoarding and smuggling. But vegetable vendor Joel Morasco says whatever the cause of the surge in price, there's a curious twist to the saga of this unassuming bulb. He says no matter the customer, everyone is opting for the cheapest, smallest variety.

JOEL MORASCO: Yeah, poor people and rich people here in the Philippines - level, same level.

MCCARTHY: You're saying everybody's the same.

MORASCO: Yeah, everybody same.

MCCARTHY: Whether everyone is the same or not, the blame game is on. The agriculture portfolio is one that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took for himself, having campaigned last year for a stable food supply. Critics, including patrons at the market, who voted for Marcos, say he's too busy as president to be running agriculture and needs to appoint someone else. Leonardo Montemayor chairs the Federation of Free Farmers.

LEONARDO MONTEMAYOR: People are wondering with all of these declarations about food security and prioritizing agriculture, how come the most basic of commodities are not readily available, or if they can be bought, they're priced beyond reach?

MCCARTHY: Senior economist for ING Bank of Manila Nicholas Mapa says that overpriced onions are only the latest in a string of shortages consumers have faced, and more are coming.

NICHOLAS MAPA: It's looking more like it's one commodity after the other. First it was pork, and then it's fish, and then it's sugar. Now it's onions. And now it looks like it's going to be chicken and eggs.

MCCARTHY: Because of expensive feed and the avian flu, he says. Mapa says getting reasonably priced food on the table is an urgent challenge. Philippine families spent a third of their budget for food. As the country's 8% inflation makes times even leaner, the House and Senate are baying to investigate the onion trade, and the national ombudsman says he's looking at price manipulation.

Amid the clamor, the Marcos government announced plans to import 21 metric tons of onions. Economists say it's the right decision, but come smack dab in the middle of the onion harvest, meaning a surplus of onions will be flooding the market.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.