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Crying over onions

Crying over onionsWhen does an economic issue turn into a mental health issue?

The world of mental health is quite expansive. It interacts with practically every facet of our lives. The moment something affects the way we think and feel, that already becomes mental health. Counter to stereotype, mental health is not just about psychiatric disorders or talking through our feelings. It also includes our experience with stability and security.

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When our economy becomes so unstable that it starts affecting our daily lives, it can affect our mental health. Reports were recently made about onion farmers who have taken their lives in despair over their financial situation, with insurmountable debts and very little assurance that relief is coming. All this while onion prices are at shockingly high prices. You would think that the farmers should, at the very least, benefit from the high prices. But apparently, both farmers and consumers are suffering greatly. (Which begs the question: Who, then, is benefiting from this?)

A farmer’s life is a high-risk life. If stability and security contribute to good mental health, it makes sense that our farmers are one of the most vulnerable groups. Depending on nature for your livelihood is essentially risky: You may experience bounty in one season, and devastation in the next. But we can’t completely blame nature for their suffering; farmers and fishermen have long understood how to work with nature instead of against it. Increasingly, human factors have intruded on this delicate balance to create unnecessary chaos and uncertainty. Man-made climate change has spiked the uncertainty and unpredictability of weather and caused more extreme events, such as typhoons and extended droughts. Patchwork protections and regulations from a short-sighted government have impeded farmers’ capacity to develop and implement long-term plans for sustainability.

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Our colonial legacy has crippled how farmers view what it means to have ownership of their land. Even with agrarian reform, our farmers were handed such small parcels that it becomes impossible to sustain without capital investment, leading them to sell back to their former landlords (or to real estate developers). Middlemen have choked our agricultural industry by the neck: The limited number of mills and refineries have led to almost nonexistent bargaining power for our farmers who have no choice but to sell at low farmgate prices despite high consumer demand. Government could focus on establishing public or cooperative cold storage and warehouses as well as processing centers, but that would mean going up against the powerful middlemen. The logistics of delivering produce from farm to table adds greatly to losses on the farmer’s end and prices on the consumer side. The lack of a robust cargo rail and dedicated cargo truck routes has forced the hand of some farmers to let their precious produce rot rather than incur more losses from exorbitant trucking fees. Our dependency on gas-fueled and road-based transportation has allowed our prices to be especially vulnerable to oil prices and traffic.

There is a lot we can do to increase farmers’ sense of stability and security. There are many empty platitudes of farmers as heroes. Behind that, however, has been a systematic stripping away of their right to self-determination. Rather than a symbiotic working relationship with nature and their land, they have been pulled back and forth, swayed helplessly by external political and economic forces. First, let them take the lead in determining farmgate prices that are just and reasonable. Instead of a top-down approach, let the farmers decide the price that will allow them to recuperate their losses, feed their families, and save for their future. If this results in a price that is too prohibitive for consumers, government should collaborate with farmers on how to increase efficiency, and thereby reduce price increases attributed to crop losses.

The Department of Science and Technology has long been developing many technologies and innovations for this. It is time to allow them to implement this on a wide scale, instead of deprioritizing research and development in governmental budgets. Investments in infrastructure that allow more efficient and long-term storage allow us to plan for surplus and shortages in a way that minimizes fluctuations in price. Investing in transport infrastructure and increasing a variety of cargo transport modes ensure that delivery of produce remain unimpeded, which will further lower the final price.

If the onion crisis is man-made, then it is—and must—be solvable. When the prices are stable and it leads to financial security for our farmers, then our farmers can hope for good mental health.

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