Food, food, food
Inflation jumped to 8% according to the official November 2022 figures of government. That is painful news. More painful, though, is that the continuing rise of inflation is being driven strongly by rising food prices. To think that food costs are the main expenses of the poor, food prices alone can magnify the suffering of the food poor sector.
The news reports on the November inflation summed it up with an economic statistic that truly frightens me. It says, or better yet, Cong. Joey Salceda, an economist by profession, says that the primary driver of high inflation remains food prices, which have risen 10% year-on-year. Is there any other interpretation outside of today’s prices being 10% higher than last year’s?
I am precisely frightened because I and most Filipinos do not experience food prices to be only 10% higher than last year. On the contrary, most food prices today being consumed by most Filipinos have jumped many times more than 10% over 2021. In fact, I am trying hard to think of food items that have increased by only 10% and can imagine only those foods which nobody buys. As an exercise, I invite readers of this article to list down the food items they regularly buy and the prices they are paying for them today versus last year.
Most of us Filipinos are not economists and statisticians. By force of circumstance, we only read what government experts say about the economy, inflation, and price increases. We have an intuitive grasp of the subject matter but our real understanding comes from the most basic reality of our lives – what we earn and what we spend. Our economic understanding is fundamentally developed from our monetary balance sheet, our income and our expenses. And I can say with conviction that food prices we regularly buy have increased by more than 10%, many times over at that.
In 2021, there were several months when I was consistently monitoring rice prices, and I mean ordinary rice, the cheapest edible types that remained fit for human consumption, because classmates, friends, and fellow anti-hunger advocates were extending feeding operations in poor communities. We managed to connect with rice wholesalers and fortunately bought at prices lower than most Filipinos were paying for. From our experience with rice a year ago compared to today, an alleged 10% increase would already be a blessing – because it is way over that.
Now, try to imagine other food items. Rice prices are the most controlled prices and government, in fact, has agencies to make sure that rice prices are steady and affordable. The control of rice prices is such that rice farmers can never make good money, maybe enough to live but never enough to grow and prosper like any other business. If rice prices today are 20-30% or more than 2021 when they are under tight watch and government intervention, the prices of less sensitive food items must be much more than 30%. Who has not heard of onion and garlic prices today when they have been the subject of sarcastic jokes in all media platforms?
That is why I am frightened by claims that food prices today are claimed by official government sources to be 10% more than last year’s – because Filipinos do not experience that claim as their daily truth when they go to the market, the sari-sari stores, and the groceries. I am frightened because nobody knows what the real increases are although our pocketbooks can tell us more accurately. Any budgeting Filipino adult knows from actual experience that government statistics simply are incredulously inaccurate.
Life can have statistical facets. I do not dispute that. But, as human beings more than just economists or statisticians, there must be some way to monitor and measure human difficulty to human suffering. We can be very flexible, even very resilient, but there are limits to stretching reality by economic statistics and claims. Experts in government and in the private sector must strive to match human experience and cold numbers. Do not tell a fearful parent that he can afford food for his hungry family because food prices rose only by 10% over a year ago.
Government functionaries have an obligation to communicate with the Filipino public because they are employed by the same public. I understand that there is a desire to make ourselves look good to others. In fact, that is usually a good motivation to behave in a good manner so others will have a favorable view of us. But the same obligation to communicate carries with it the requirement for factuality and truth. Though the general public is human and can tolerate margins for error, we cannot stretch the truth until it is a lie.
We must not give in to the temptation to manipulate statistics in order to make ourselves look better than we actually are to the point we are already dishonest. That is lying, plain and simple. What would we feel if the teachers of our children manipulate their test scores to make some children look better than they are, and other children look worse? What is the difference when it is done with official statistics?
Most Filipinos are already harshly challenged by food prices going up and up. It is adding salt to open wounds when told that food prices have risen by 10% year-on-year when daily food expenses reflect a different and much more painful reality. Cong. Joey Salceda did mention one solid truth, though, when he asserted that there is no substitute solution but to increase food supply.
We, then, must do our personal best to increase that food supply. If we cannot do it directly, then we help farmers and other producers increase production. How to is for each one of us to determine according to our personal situation. I can say, though, that we have little choice, that we can, and that we must.
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