An unusually long dry spell this year led to a glut of some two million mangoes in the Philippines, causing prices to collapse and revealing how the farming infrastructure is woefully ill-prepared for the turmoil stirred up by a rapidly changing, unpredictable climate.
It was a bumper harvest that had consumers snapping up baskets full of the fruit in state organised “mango festivals”, but burying farmers deeper in debt.
The worst hit was the main island of Luzon, which is roughly the size of South Korea.
Over 400 million mangoes were harvested in the northern and central regions of Luzon this year, according to data released by the Philippine Statistics Authority. That was two million more than what the market can absorb.
The surplus caused prices to plunge from 58 pesos ($1.13) per kilogramme to as low as 25 pesos. In some places, like Salcedo town in Ilocos Sur province, 350km north of the capital Manila, the fruit was selling for as little as 15 pesos per kilogramme.
Cocoa farmer Emmylou Arruejo Jomero from Salcedo said she was surprised to see her mango trees brimming with fruit, after two years of being barren. But when she was told she could sell it for just 15 pesos per kilogramme, she decided to leave the mangoes by the roadside for passers-by to take.
Lack of rain
Agriculture Secretary Manuel Pinol blamed the glut on El Nino, the weather phenomenon that exacerbates hot, humid weather. He said the last time stocks were this high was after the El Nino episodes of 2015 and 2016.
Pinol also accused a dried mango exporter based in Cebu province, south of Manila, of exacerbating the situation after it stopped buying from local producers and began importing from Cambodia.
To help out, the agriculture department launched a marketing push to sell a million mangoes at 25 to 50 pesos per kilogramme in several places across metropolitan Manila. Bulk buyers get the lowest price.
Pinol said that at one stall, 15 tonnes of mangoes were sold in less than three hours.
“This only proves that the farmers just need to be linked to the market. We will pursue this,” he said.
The department is also sponsoring cooking shows to promote the use of mangoes as ingredients, and organising workshops to help growers sell to buyers abroad.
The government has already got a Japanese company to buy 100 tonnes of the fruit, said Pinol.
For experts and policy analysts, however, the problem is not as simple and the solution not so straightforward. The problem cannot be pinned solely on El Nino, or on climate change, they said.
“It’s the season for mangoes. It has nothing to do with climate change. It has everything to do with you not anticipating that you’ll have a bumper harvest,” said Maria Golda Hilario, associate for programme development at the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC).
She said although the long dry spell brought on by El Nino did add to the mango boom, there were other factors involved.
For instance, farmers had been spraying mango trees with hormones to induce flowering.
Without rains to dislodge some of the flowers and disrupt the process, the trees just kept on flowering.
The parched earth, meanwhile, further stressed the trees, inducing them to produce more fruit.
Then, the humid environment was also conducive for pollinators.
But a bumper harvest itself should have been a good thing.
Pinol acknowledged as much. “It’s a good phenomenon for us,” he said, but added: “The only problem was that the farmers were not able to coordinate the expected oversupply, and the [agriculture department] also lagged in monitoring these developments.”
The long view is to build an industry around mangoes.
Farmers are primed to produce as much as they can.
“They’re happy with a bumper harvest. The problem is when no one’s buying. The population can’t take in all the output. There’s only so much mango you can eat. Prices will eventually fall if you don’t drive up demand,” said Hilario.
She said the government should be thinking about “the other side of the value chain”.
It should, for instance, be arranging marketing contracts that would guarantee buyers, especially when there is a bumper harvest, she said. Perhaps the government itself could guarantee procurement.
The government could also invest in post-harvest facilities that extend the shelf-life of mangoes, or support industries using mangoes in less conventional ways, including as food ingredients and candy. “It doesn’t have to be a production end approach,” said Hilario.
She said there was already a blueprint drafted under former president Benigno Aquino. “They just have to implement it. They just have to invest in it,” she said.
For Angelo Kairos de la Cruz, ICSC’s associate for climate policy, the mango glut should spur the government into acting now, as the problem is bound to get worse before it gets better.
This year’s El Nino episode has already cost at least eight billion pesos in damage to farmlands, livestock and fish pens.
Climate change is leading to even more of these episodes.
“We used to see El Nino every six to seven years. Now, we’re seeing it occurring every three years,” said de la Cruz.
By 2050, experts estimate there will be 40 per cent less rainfall in the Philippines due to a warmer climate. And that does not even account for El Nino.
“The worst part about it is that it’s not the big players, not the big farms, that are suffering, not the haciendas or sugar barons, but the small farmers and fisher folks,” said de la Cruz. THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)