The Filipino craving for imported food, especially Stateside ones, is not unique. But it certainly is more extreme than in many other societies, maybe to the point that it has become a national obsession.
Our food imports reached US$1.6 billion in 2009, with New Zealand on top of the list with $253 million worth of imported stuff, mostly milk powder. The US placed second with $246 million, composed of a wider variety of items. Our top five imports were red meat, dairy products, snack foods, poultry, and processed fruits and vegetables.
All these facts and figures come from the US Department of Agriculture’s Global Agricultural Information Network, with a title that says it all: “Philippines Becomes Top Growth Market for US Foods and Beverages.” Compiled in November 2010, the report projects that by the end of 2010, which had been a good year for the Philippine economy with a surge in consumer spending, our food imports from the US would go beyond US$400 million.
Our demand for imported food certainly began only during the American colonial period, as the technology for the long-term processing of food became more widely used. Stateside canned goods, including the iconic pre-computer Spam (meaning the meat product) allowed Filipinos to literally have a taste of the good (American) life.
The desire for Stateside food intensified with the presence of US military bases in the Philippines and the subsequent rise of the “PX” trade, PX referring to the Post Exchange or retail stores within the bases. Personnel working in the bases would smuggle out Stateside goods, including many food items that would be sold in stores outside the bases, mainly in Angeles (Pampanga) and in Manila (Cartimar, Pasay especially). The outlets offered a cornucopia of canned food, soft drinks, chocolates and snack foods.
A less well-known source of our Stateside food dependency was the American food aid program, which came in directly from the US government or through Catholic Relief Services. The food aid program, which included flour and milk powder, created a demand for imported food while discouraging moves toward local food self-sufficiency.
The military bases have long gone and US food aid has stopped, but with trade liberalization, the country is now flooded with even more imported food stuff that may cost less than local produce because of reduced tariff or taxes. Parents used to imported items unwittingly pass on their colonial mentality to the next generation of Filipinos each time they’re in the supermarket.
In recent years, the growing interest in healthier lifestyles has, ironically, further reinforced the demand for imported food as these are presumed to be safer, especially when the products use labels like “natural” and “healthy.” The USDA report I mentioned earlier notes that the growth for “gourmet, organic and ‘healthy’ foods… has been especially rapid in 2010, and the prospects for continued growth are excellent.” Note how the word healthy appears in quotes, probably a tacit recognition of how food labels can be deceptive.
Fortunately, greater health consciousness has also meant more interest in consuming locally-produced food, which makes more sense. Going local is healthier because it means fresher produce, with nutrients kept intact, unlike canned and processed foods where many nutrients have been taken out, while the product is literally inundated with sugar and/or salt for preservation and longer shelf life.
Imported produce have to be transported over long distances, which increases the chances of food contamination and poisoning. The recent outbreak of food poisoning in Europe was traced to a German farm producing organic bean sprouts, which were exported to various European countries. Whenever we buy imported foods, we add to our carbon footprint because of the fuel used to move the stuff. I know it’s hard to think of a footprint with one canned product but do a quick inventory of how much imported food you consume in a year, to include beverages like mineral water, and it could add up.
Finally, imported food stifles the growth of our local agriculture and food industry, with many implications for long-term food security. Besides Stateside goods, we’re seeing Chinese fruits, Thai fish sauce and rice, even Vietnamese jackfruit (langka) chips displacing local products.
Let’s go green, and go local. For those who want local organic food, there are now a growing number of outlets that offer locally-sourced organic food often produced by small-scale farmers. This includes vegetables and herbs, dairy products, eggs, rice, coffee, honey and even pork and chicken.
Remember that because organic means no pesticides and, for meat, no antibiotics and growth hormones, the products may not look as good but when it comes to taste, they can be as good, if not better, than the non-organic stuff.