The problem of salt: Gateway for institutional and systemic reforms
With the constant news on shortage of basic necessities, the problem of salt surfaced. In summary, today 93 percent of our salt requirement is imported. It is ironic because we traditionally produced our own since the 18th century with our long coastline where salt farms are ideal.
The causes are known and entirely within our power to change. Let us start with the regulatory environment—a law cutely titled Asin or the Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide passed in 1995. This immediately leads to a series of questions.
One is technical. Why do we need a law to require iodization? Because many Filipinos then suffered from iodine deficiency disorder (IDD). Our diet did not provide enough iodine. Since our bodies need salt every day, iodizing the salt we ingest solves the problem. This is strange because we are surrounded by bodies of water where marine, particularly fish, supply is available. The first policy thrust is to advocate for Filipinos to eat healthy.
I take heart in the recent Senate hearings on the high sodium and high sucrose content in many of our everyday foodstuffs that damage our organs and have an effect on leading productive lives.
Two is policy. The scope of Asin law covers the whole value chain for salt and provides sanctions, ranging from fines to revocation of permits and bans. Overnight, it shut down the range of premium artisanal and gourmet types of salt that are prized for their origins and preparation, minerals, and flavors.
This is a failure of regulation. While the objective is good, the means employed are not sensible. In other words, salt production or any kind of economic activity is not zero-sum. One can push for iodization while allowing for specialty products that add up to our total output.
The effect is that specialty salt cannot be exported or sold abroad because the country of destination requires a certification from the government that what is sold is also available in the local market, which is not the case since it is not iodized, hence unavailable and illegal.
Policymakers need to step up and consider the whole range of possibilities and consequences before casting anything in stone.
Third is the climate. It is not only about shorelines. A predictable and consistent sun shining to evaporate the water is essential. Our geography hits us with multiple, more severe typhoons and tropical depressions. The wet and dry season we grew up with is no longer the same.
This is coupled with the need for constant raking of the dried salt by manual labor—manpower that is no longer around because of the hollowing out of all types of farming including salt. Who wants to toil under the hot sun and be disqualified from “ayuda”?
Thankfully, salt is a cheap commodity. The import value is not something that will bankrupt us, especially if it is not to our competitive advantage to keep investing where returns are not economic.
Last is regulatory. The proposed legislative changes are on amending the Fisheries Code to bring salt into its framework. It is more regulation and more unforeseen outcomes. Perhaps we can be innovative in law where we cannot elsewhere. There is no need for law when it comes to food production. Let the market work. Entrepreneurs will find the resources if only the environment enables them. The government comes in when there is market failure or when there is need to protect consumers.
With how our laws are designed, it assumes a state that is all-knowing and all-doing. In reality, we can barely enforce them. The least that can be done is less laws and fewer rules. The current system has not been working very well for us, so why not try a different approach?
The problem of salt may yet be the gateway for institutional and systemic reforms that are first driven by the opening of minds. It will be a new day and give substance to being the “salt of the earth.”
Geronimo L. Sy,
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