The price of gasoline nudges up a little bit by 50 centavos and newsreaders hyperventilate in breaking the story.
If the cumulative increase in a given period reaches P3, transport leaders outshout themselves in clamoring for a fare hike, creating a racket louder than a dozen buses honking their horns to call passengers.
Now that diesel is P25 per liter and gasoline is less than P35 per liter, car owners are heaving a sigh of relief, not knowing that money saved from low fuel prices is eaten up by longer time on gridlocked roads.
But there is one oil-benchmarked commodity whose price is not heading south—fertilizers.
Surprisingly for a country where three in 10 workers are in farms and whose output accounts for 12 percent of the economy, there is no clamor, not even a muted hoot, for lower fertilizer prices.
A dancing cat may draw a million likes in Facebook, or a cute quip of a presidential hopeful could trend, or the rendezvous of two TV lovers will unleash six million sugary tweets. Not fertilizer prices. In social media metric, fertilizers are not only bland but boring.
But it shouldn’t be. The unli rice we eat while we fidget with our smartphones are produced with the aid of fertilizers.
Most of us may be clueless about it, but the truth is food prices and farmers income are influenced by fertilizer cost, and the latter, in turn, by oil prices.
This is so because fertilizer prices shadow oil price movements, in theory and in other countries at least. But it seems that the Philippines is firewalled from this trend.
Take for example India’s case. There, a bag of “complete” or 14-14-14 fertilizer fetches the equivalent of P596 there.
Here, it’s P1,116. A bag of Urea in Bollywood-land costs half than the August local price tag of P1,006.
For the latte-sipping coffeehouse crowd, P500 won’t amount much, but for rice farmers it spells the difference between a good season or a bad one.
Twenty percent of rice production cost goes to fertilizer. It’s the second biggest expense after hired labor, which corners 40 percent. Ideally, six bags of fertilizers are recommended for one hectare.
But if there’s no money on hand or the roving 5-6 cash machine can’t be found, chances are the farmer would scrimp on fertilizer, broadcasting four bags instead of six.
The result is lower yield for the farm, smaller income for the farmer, and higher market prices, because, if we remember our high school economics lesson, price movements are inversely proportional to supply.
Luckily for us, prices of fertilizer have also been known to move due to government pressure.
It was reported that in 2008, the Department of Agriculture skilfully but sans fanfare negotiated a 43-percent rollback in the prices of fertilizers.
The DA’s argument then was that fertilizer rates should mimic oil prices which by then had gone down.
The same pitch can be used today. The conditions obtaining then are present now. You don’t have to Google global prices of crude to be educated of its freefall. You only have to drive up any gas station to remind yourself that a liter of local mineral water is now more expense than a liter of imported diesel.
The DA at that time may have been reeling from the liquid fertilizer scam, with its infamous tubong-lugaw formulation, yet it was able to muster will to bring down the prices of real fertilizers farmers need.
The present government has enough political capital to wangle good fertilizer prices for farmers. And if it is in search of a miracle fertilizer that will make the ratings of its candidate for 2016 shoot up fast, then it knows what it is—the one 20 million rural voters use.
But this is all about good economics and not about political tactics. There is a case for lower fertilizer prices.
By the way, the agency responsible for fertilizers is the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority, which has been placed under the Office of the President.
Despite the “authority” written on its shingle, FPA cannot mandate fertilizer prices. It can only monitor them. What it can surely provide is historical data to support that local fertilizer prices have been resistant to cheap oil.
Well, it can also be argued that the cut in fertilizer prices is not as hefty as some groups are proposing. This is possible. But what can’t also be ruled out is the need to start a national conversation on fertilizer prices.
‘‘Presidentiables” should heed the cue and take the lead. So must the rest of the political species who would rant and rave and call for a probe at the drop of a hat.
In this season of premature campaigning ruled by style and spin, this is one issue that can cure the deficit in substance. If your agricultural platform is weak and thin, and suffering from an El Niño of ideas, then sprinkling it with a dose of fertilizer could be the nutrition it needs.