Sweetening the pot for our salt industry

Salt—called sodium chloride by chemists—has been an important and integral part of the world’s history, interwoven into countless civilizations. Roman soldiers, for example, were given special salt rations known as “salarium argentum,” the forerunner of the English word “salary.”

The first Native Americans “discovered” by Europeans in the Caribbean were harvesting sea salt. When the major European fishing fleets discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland at the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese and Spanish fleets used the “wet” method of salting their fish onboard, while the French and English fleets used the “dry” or “shore” salting method of drying their catch on racks onshore. Due to this early food processing, French and British fishermen became the first European inhabitants of North America since the Vikings a half-century earlier. Had it not been for the practice of salting fish, Europeans might have confined their fishing to the coasts of Europe and delayed “discovery” of the New World.

In the modern world, a number of industries would not exist without salt. The food processing industry, for one, uses salt extensively to create a number of products. Aside from preserving food, salt is also used in the manufacture of baking soda, chlorine and other chemicals.

The Philippines used to produce salt in huge quantities until the 1990s. Citing a report published by Pacific Farms Inc., the Department of Science and Technology in Region 4-B said provinces like Bulacan, Pangasinan, Occidental Mindoro and Cavite supplied almost 85 percent of the country’s salt requirement in 1990. In less than a decade, output would shrink and the country would eventually rely on foreign producers for its salt requirements.

What doomed the local salt industry, the DOST said, is the seasonal pattern change due to climate change and producers’ reliance on age-old production methods. As challenges became insurmountable and made salt farming less attractive, large producers were forced to shut down their farms or convert their areas into other profitable ventures, such as fishponds, residential or commercial properties.

The Philippines, which has the fifth largest shoreline in the world, imports around 80 percent of its salt requirements from countries like Australia and China (See, “Occidental Mindoro boosting salt industry through new tech,” in the BusinessMirror, May 28, 2017). Our reliance on imported essential items, such as salt, means that the country is compensating foreign producers for things that can be produced locally. Data from the Department of Trade and Industry showed that the value of the country’s salt imports in 2020 and 2021 reached $55.32 million or P3.04 billion at the current exchange rate.

The amount spent by the Philippines to import salt in 2020 and 2021 is enough to support the livelihood of thousands of local producers. However, reviving the salt industry would require serious effort on the part of policymakers. It would entail making the necessary investments in technology, and capacity building to allow local producers to compete again with foreign suppliers.

The Department of Labor and Employment noted that the revival of the local salt industry could create 20,000 direct jobs and 80,000 indirect jobs (See, “DOLE eyes revival of PHL salt-making industry in coastal areas to create jobs,” in the BusinessMirror, June 9, 2022). These salt farms can be set up in areas where many of the rural poor reside.

Key to the revival of the industry is access to technology, which will allow farmers to produce salt all year-round even under erratic weather conditions. Aside from allowing farmers to gain access to technology, investors and farmers must also get perks, as proposed by a lawmaker who made a pitch for the set up of an inter-agency body that will craft a plan for the salt industry (See, “Lawmaker wants local salt farmers to get perks,” in the BusinessMirror, July 18, 2022). Reviving the local salt industry would not only allow farmers to improve their income; this will also benefit the manufacturing sector.