Philippine agriculture

What led to the demise of the Philippine salt industry, and what needs to be done

Dwight de Leon
What led to the demise of the Philippine salt industry, and what needs to be done

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An archipelagic country like the Philippines sources up to 93% of its salt abroad, a result of the decades-long inattention to salt farmers. Lawmakers say it's time to revitalize an industry that's already 'at death's door.'

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines has among the longest shorelines in the world, a geographic feature that makes it prime for salt production, yet it imports most of its salt.

This irony was front and center during a House agriculture panel hearing on Tuesday, October 25, which zeroed in on how the country can revitalize its deteriorating salt industry.

Local industry players said the declining salt production in the archipelago was not always the case, but was the result of changing times whose impact was largely ignored.

Growing population, urbanization

The Philippine Association of Salt Industry Networks (PhilAsin) said the country uses up to 683,000 metric tons of salt annually, but that number is expected to increase in the coming years due to the rapidly growing population, and the demand that will be created by a law that would generate the need to fertilize coconut trees.

At the moment, the government imports 92% to 93% of the country’s salt. “If the country does not gather around and have a strategy,” the group said, around 96% of the much-needed mineral, or around 1.3 million metric tons, will be sourced from abroad by 2030. That would cost P6.5 billion.

Graphics by Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler
Graphics by Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

“We need salt because it has 14,000 uses. It is used in food, the household, animal foods, agriculture, water treatment, and so many sodium and chlorine-based products like muriatic acid and baking soda,” PhilAsin president Gerard Khonghun told lawmakers.

To make matters worse, urbanization took a toll on salt production. Venues for salt production in the provinces of Cavite and Bulacan, and the cities of Las Piñas and Parañaque, among others, have been converted into residential and commercial areas through the years.

“Many decades ago, these areas were having a lot of salt production, in the 1970s and 1980s, but these were now being converted without opening or approving new areas for salt-making,” Khonghun said.

The group compared the Philippines to Vietnam, a country that has a significantly smaller coastline, but has five times the salt-making area compared to the Philippines.

Graphics by Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler
Mandating salt iodization

Some congressmen also believe that the law requiring salt iodization made it difficult for the industry to comply due to the need for more sophisticated technology and machinery.

Signed into law during the Ramos administration in 1995, Republic Act 8172 sought to address micronutrient malnutrition, specifically iodine deficiency disorders.

“The death of the industry was because of this law,” House Assistant Majority Leader Richard Gomez said. “We need to amend this law so that consumers will be given a chance to pick the salt they want, because not everyone is deficient in iodine, not everyone has goiter.”

“We support RA 8172. However, during its implementation, it lacked industry support and it marginalized certain small to medium salt farmers,” Khonghun added.

Revitalizing the industry

Multiple government agencies present during Tuesday’s House panel hearing expressed their support for a proposal seeking to revitalize the salt industry in the Philippines.

House Bill 1976, filed by Kabayan Representative Ron Salo, lays out a plan to reduce dependency on salt importation, and become a more self-sufficient, salt-producing country.

Under the proposal, a task force composed of multiple government agencies and representatives from the local salt industry will be formed to develop a short-term to long-term development program that will make the Philippines competitive again in salt exportation.

Other key provisions of the bill include: tasking the agriculture undersecretary for fisheries to oversee the implementation of the salt industry development plan, identifying areas suitable for government-funded salt projects, providing assistance to small-scale farms and expediting registrations, and providing funding and training for salt farmers.

“The government must lead the way in stimulating the local salt industry by supporting artisanal salt farmers to mainstream their products in local and export markets…and effectively engage the private sector to leverage investments to ensure sustainability,” Salo said in his speech.

Graphics by Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

Party-list group Agri, which also filed its own bill, but which was not yet on the agenda in Tuesday’s committee hearing, also underscored the need to empower an industry that has seen families of salt farmers turn their back on such line of work.

“[That] 93% of our salt supply is imported despite being an archipelagic country is a wake-up call that our salt industry is ‘sinking’ and if I may say, at death’s door,” Lee said.

The House panel has formed a technical working group after the hearing to further scrutinize the proposal on the revitalization of the Philippines’ salt industry.

“Our dream is for Filipinos to eat Filipino-made salt produced from the Philippine Sea,” Khonghun said. “We believe we can do it.” – Rappler.com

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Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers local government units and the Commission on Elections for Rappler.