Soaring prices and smuggling: The Philippines are in an ‘onion crisis’

Onions are now being sold in the Philippines for up to 600 Philippine pesos (10 euros) per kilogram, amid a shortage and inflation in the country.
Onions are now being sold in the Philippines for up to 600 Philippine pesos (10 euros) per kilogram, amid a shortage and inflation in the country. © Observers / Twitter

Onions now cost more than meat in the Philippines. As the country hits near-unprecedented levels of inflation sparked by natural disasters and a global fuel crisis, the pantry staple is in high demand at even higher prices. Since December 2022, people have been posting prices of onions online and even sharing how they’ve been able to bring onions in from abroad. The government has been cracking down on supposed "onion smuggling" as it attempts to bring prices down through imports.


The humble onion is being sold for as much as 600 Philippine pesos (10 euros) per kilogram, even higher than the daily minimum wage in the country, and far beyond the average global price of 1.50 euros per kilogram.

An onion is now nearly three times as expensive as chicken at Filippino markets, and is 25% more expensive than beef. 

Photos shared on Twitter show onions at a market in San Jose, Philippines being sold for 400 pesos (6.75 euros) per kilogram.
A photo shared on Twitter on December 29, 2022 shows red onions being sold for 600 Philippine pesos (10 euros) per kilogram.

Onions are now considered so luxurious that Filipinos have begun likening them to gold. One bride clutched a bouquet of onions at her wedding. Another couple gave out onions as wedding gifts. Jokes featuring onions as a rare and expensive status symbol abound online.

The shortage and consequent price surges come after billions of pesos worth of crops were destroyed by a series of typhoons in 2022. This, alongside global food, fuel and fertiliser crises pushed the country’s inflation rate to 8.1% in December 2022 – a 14-year high. The Philippines is also one of the most food-insecure countries in Asia, depending on imports to feed its population.

The onion has become the symbol of this food crisis, more than quadrupling in price over four months. Some pointed the finger at the department of agriculture for failing to import onions when shortages were on the horizon

Others suspected price manipulation, calling President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who also appointed himself agriculture secretary, “directly accountable” for the spike.

A photo posted on Twitter on January 20, 2023 shows people waiting in line to buy onions in Quezon City, Philippines.

The shortages and inflation have prompted many to start bringing onions in from abroad. Posts online say that onions are the best new souvenir, in place of chocolates or keepsakes. Several members of a flight crew were investigated after bringing 15 kilograms of onions into the country from Saudi Arabia. 

A Twitter user explains how they were able to buy two kilos of onions in Thailand for around one-tenth of the price in the Philippines.
This Twitter user says that a bag of onions is the perfect “pasalubong”, or souvenir gift, to bring home to the Philippines after a trip abroad.

But officials have warned travellers not to import or smuggle onions into the country. They seized and impounded 500 million to 600 million pesos (8.4 million to 10 million euros) worth of onions last year. While some individuals have brought in sacks of onions for their families, others are smuggling mass quantities in with other goods. In December 2022, authorities found 50,000 kilograms hidden among imported pastries and bread products.

On January 22 and 23, customs officers intercepted nearly 9.5 million pesos (160,000 euros) worth of red onions at the Port of Zamboanga.

President Marcos said the government wants to find a way to sell these smuggled goods legally.

The government announced in early January that it would import 22,000 tonnes of onions as a “temporary solution” to help meet demand and bring down prices.