FIRST sugar, and now salt. Although the news that the country has been importing practically all of its salt requirements for some time first emerged last month, it has only gotten moved onto the front pages of the newspapers this week, thanks to aggressive public simpering about the issue by the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food (PCAF) in connection with congressional deliberations over the Department of Agriculture's budget for 2023.

Just as with the sugar controversy, the predictable demand for solutions to the country's inability to harvest and process the world's most abundant mineral commodity involves dispensing with any notion of economic practicality in order to prop up an unproductive niche sector. The saltmakers' advocacy, however, has gone one step beyond that to suggest that public health should also be sacrificed for the "livelihood" of 0.04 percent of the population.

Despite some fears among the public, who seem to be increasingly resigned to hearing about shortages of basic agricultural commodities, there is no shortage of salt and will not be for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that very little of it actually comes from the Philippines. That seems quite ironic for a country that has 36,000 kilometers of coastline and could, if agricultural policymakers and those interested in developing a salt industry had the ability to exercise even a modest level of critical thinking, produce enough salt to bury the entire planet.

If they did apply that critical thinking, this is what it would lead them to: because salt is so abundant, it is a cheap commodity; there are some higher-value variants, such as largely unrefined "sea salt" and that Himalayan salt that comes in pink and other colors due to various mineral contaminations, but the main reason these are more expensive is because of creative marketing. Salt prices vary around the world, but surveying a couple of dozen countries to get an average yields a rough price for raw (industrial) salt of about $33 per metric ton; for comparison, the cheapest price for a metric ton of topsoil is in the US, and averages about $36; salt is literally cheaper than dirt.

The only way to make that kind of commodity profitable is to produce it on a massive scale. That scale cannot be achieved piecemeal through many small, individual operations all operating more or less independently, because they cannot be individually profitable. One would think that policymakers would have caught on to this basic reality through years of unsatisfying experience with practically every other important commodity — rice, coconuts, sugar, etc. — particularly since these exist side by side with successful examples of scale economics with crops such as bananas and pineapples, but you know what they say about what happens when you assume.

Get the latest news
delivered to your inbox
Sign up for The Manila Times’ daily newsletters
By signing up with an email address, I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Rather than follow the sensible path and work through one of the investment promotion agencies to try to attract factory-scale salt production — an enterprise that could provide the currently kawawa subsistence-level salt workers with good jobs — the assumption is made that these "livelihoods" that will never be economically viable must be defended at all costs. That has led PCAF to make the utterly ridiculous and destructive suggestion that the real problem is not an economic model that hasn't made sense since the 18th century, but the nearly 30-year-old "Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide," or the ASIN Law (RA 8172), that has been on the books since 1995. The law requires that salt sold for direct consumer consumption (as food) be iodized, a relatively simple refinement that ensures Filipinos do not suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. In a large-scale salt refining operation, iodization is easy and adds only a modest additional cost to the process; for small salt producers, acquiring and operating the necessary machinery is a prohibitive expense. Due to this, PCAF is urging Congress to repeal RA 8172.

Again, even though the solution is obvious, the preference is for a wrong answer that will not, because of the economics of salt production, actually help the saltmakers at all, and will have the unintended consequence of harming public health, particularly for children. For the sake of at most about 50,000 saltmakers — the number the sector "used to" employ, according to PCAF — Congress is supposed to accept the risk of malnutrition and growth stunting in young people and endocrine disorders in older ones.

From top to bottom, Philippine policymaking needs to be shifted from the counterproductive and persistent preference for cultivating the lesser good; which in turn is based on a perverse, but admittedly not entirely ineffective, political philosophy that holds that making a show of "looking out for the little guy" is the true yardstick by which one's fitness for office is judged. That orientation is a luxury for countries that have an industrial or an industrial-scale base that ensures the supply of basic needs; in countries that do not, it only serves to retard progress and virtually guarantees that neither basic needs of the population generally nor the specific needs of "the little guy" are adequately met. Think about that, and decide which type of country you think the Philippines is.

[email protected]

Twitter: @benkritz