At the start of this week, three multinational food and beverage companies took the unusual step of telling the Filipino public that their main products were disappearing from store shelves because they had practically stopped production.
The manufacturers of Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, and RC Cola came out with a joint statement saying what many consumers already knew, but which is not fully recognized or appreciated by our political leaders.
There is a serious sugar shortage, and the situation is bound to get worse in the next few weeks, all the way to September, when sugar millers start producing the key commodity which manufacturers and ordinary consumers will then gobble up like crazy.
Last week, the Sugar Regulatory Administration board came out with an order authorizing or allowing the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar.
It was not really a solution, but more of a stop-gap measure to insure that there will be no shortage.
Here’s where it gets complicated.
That order was rescinded or scrapped because it did not have the approval of President Bongbong Marcos, who also happens to be acting as Agriculture secretary.
The president’s backers were quick to congratulate Malacanang for stopping what was clearly a graft-tainted deal.
Manufacturers, on the other hand, reminded the government that the sugar shortage is real. There is little, if any, sugar to be found in the wholesale and retail market.
A kilo of refined sugar which sold for a little over P50 or $1 a couple of months ago now sells for twice that amount, or P100 (about $2). Washed sugar is cheaper at P75 per kilo, while ordinary brown sugar goes for P70, if they can be found in the shelves of stores and supermarkets.
The likes of Coke, Pepsi and RC only use white sugar for their drinks. The same is true for the juices and iced teas that they also sell.
This is why the planned sugar import is so divisive. And it is also the reason why big business is divided. The manufacturers will not produce their products with anything but refined sugar, and there is none to be had.
Or is there?
Only in times like these do we Filipinos realize how important sugar is to our existence. We literally cannot live without it, even if consuming too much of it is known to cause serious health problems, like diabetes.
Sugar is not just that fine white or brown sand-like powder that we put in drinks or use in cooking. The three abovementioned MNCs depend on a steady supply of sugar to keep consumers happy. Sugar is also found in a number of foods, both processed and unprocessed.
And yes, it’s also the main ingredient in the junk foods that Filipinos cannot live without.
The country can and should be self-sufficient in the commodity that was first developed in the Arab world and was known as ‘sarkara.’ Aztecs and Mayans discovered that putting the sweet stuff in chocolate turned the bitter drink into a heavenly delight.
The candy, chocolate and confectionary industries cannot exist without sugar.
There are a few provinces in the Philippines which produce raw sugar, and not too long ago sugar workers called sacadas were virtual slaves to the owners of the plantations.
The local sugar industry titans became super rich because there were always buyers for their finished products, and not just in the country either.
For a while, it seemed that the global manufacturers dependent on sugar were ready to shift to artificial sweeteners. Until studies showed that many of those sweeteners could cause cancer.
Lately, plant-based sweeteners like stevia have appeared in the market, and while totally safe, have not replaced good, old-fashioned refined or even raw sugar.
As a commodity that is still in high demand, there is no reason why a steady supply cannot be assured, year after year.
This brings me back to the question: Is there really a serious shortage of sugar?
My answer is no. There’s more than enough sugar for both manufacturing industry and consumers. The supply is just not being distributed to the end users.
Industry insiders talk of a mafia or a cartel that hoards commodities, who then wait for mild panic to set in, then release their stocks to a grateful nation.
It’s true folks. Hoarding by some big, bad middlemen is a cyclical practice, and each time there is an artificial shortage they earn not just tens of millions of pesos, but hundreds of millions.
Today it’s sugar, but it’s also white onions which have disappeared from the market. For a while, flour was also in extremely short supply.
Even something as lowly as our super hot siling labuyo disappeared for a spell last year, and a cup of the hot spice which used to sell for P20 on ordinary days suddenly became P20 per piece!
I kid thee not, folks.
Previously, there was also an artificial shortage of garlic, the good local kind and not the tasteless ones from China.
One can almost predict where this supposed shortage will end. The product will miraculously reappear in market, sari sari store, and supermarket shelves.
Once that happens, the hoarders will again be happily laughing their way to the bank.
Manufacturers and consumers will be happy, but you can bet your sweet tooth that sugar planters will seethe in anger, as they have been victimized yet again.
It does not matter which group or party is in power. The faceless hoarders have been around for decades, and will be doing their thing long after we’re gone.
That’s just the way it is.
And why do I know all this? To be honest, I was still a bit of an innocent young man when I ran into a couple of big-time hoarders.
One was actually from the entertainment industry but who delved in distributing farm produce when the need to earn a few extra millions hit him. He literally flooded the market with garlic at the height of a supposed shortage.
A little later, I met a businessman who had what I thought was a rice warehouse, but he showed me the tons of sugar he stored behind sacks of rice.
It was this gent who told me that rats may go after his grains, but they never, never touch refined sugar. Go figure. It’s one reason I hardly ever touch the stuff, aside from the fact that I’m diabetic.
Next time you read or hear about supposed sugar smuggling, just know that it’s very likely fake news. There’s very little smuggling of sugar, but there most certainly is a lot of hoarding going around.