DURING a grocery run last Thursday, I picked up a box of Twinkies to share with two nephews. It was not a thought-out purchase and the item didn’t even appear on my grocery list, but love sometimes leads to poor decisions.
Twinkies are what nutritionists would call empty calories. Each one packs 150 calories and about 19 grams of sugar, according to Livestrong.com, which is about one teaspoon less than the recommended maximum intake of sugar per day. Healthier and more mindful consumers—the ones who take the time to read every line on the label—would know this. I learned this two Twinkies too late, when the cream hidden inside each of these sponge cakes began to clog my arteries. Why do people make this stuff? Why do people eat it?
The latest trade report, released a little over a week ago, does not say how many Twinkies consumers in the Philippines bought in 2016. It does say that we imported US$228.19 million (P11.81 billion) worth of food and live animals in December 2016, about 1.8 percent than what we imported in December 2015. That’s on top of the $103.24 million (P5.05 billion) worth of fruits and vegetables imported during the holidays last year, about 11.6 percent more than what we imported in December the other year.
The more I read that trade report, the stranger its import felt.
Did you know that we imported 50.8 percent more dairy products in December 2016 than in the same month in 2015? The bill amounted to US$70.82 million (about P3.47 billion). No wonder the milk shelves are full of powdered milk or cartons of milk that have been nowhere near a locally raised cow, carabao or goat. In contrast, carabao’s milk cheese or keseo, which farmers’ families used to sell door-to-door in our neighborhood a few days each week, has become a rare treat, available only in a supermarket kiosk on some weekends. What would livestock farmers be able to do better with an additional P3 billion or so to work with? Another puzzle: we imported US$25.32 million (about P1.24 billion) worth of corn in December 2016, about 251 percent more than in December of the year before. Why?
When did this shift begin? Who decided that local foodstuffs ought to become the rarer and sometimes costlier treat, and imported items a more common commodity for Filipino households? I blame the sugar rush from those two Twinkies for this bout of what feels like guilt.
We are a nation that consumes foreign goods with enthusiasm. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that millions of Filipinos driven to work abroad send back tons of such foreign-made goods as tokens of their affection probably amplified it.
Practicality also plays a part. On a grocery run, I think of my family’s needs and what few creature comforts (a few apples, a bunch of grapes, a box of sugar-drenched sponge cakes) we can get for the least cost. One of these days, I would like to tag along while economists buy groceries, to see how much ideas like comparative advantages or opportunity costs shape their decisions as consumers.
Recent news reports quoted the agriculture secretary as saying he wants the rice import quota extended for two years past its June 30, 2017 deadline. But my more immediate reaction was to wonder if the household’s supply of rice would continue to be affordable and whether the rice (regardless of where it came from) would taste good.
What fraction of consumers would pay more for something that was more labor-intensive to make or harmed the planet less than a similar, but cheaper item? There are better consumer behaviors that would serve the interests not only of households, but larger communities. Now if only policymakers could find a way to teach sugar-addled consumers about them.