Solving the salt shortage problem

by Admin-Phmp

Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photos by Willie Lomibao

This one is for Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” The Philippines, whose more than 6,000 islands are surrounded by large bodies of sea water, is having some problems with common salt (Sodium chloride).

The Philippines has 36,000 kilometers of shoreline – the fifth longest shoreline in the world. Today’s generation may not know it, but the country used to have a thriving salt industry.

Las Piñas City is probably one of the oldest salt farming areas in the country, according to academician Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III. In fact, it earned the moniker, “Saltbed of the Philippines,” due to hundreds of hectares of salt farms.

In his regular column, “Straight from the Farm,” Dr. Guerrero described the place in these words: “The place consisted of fishponds along the shoreline of Manila Bay which were bottom-lined with clay tiles to serve as salterns (salt beds) for evaporating sea water (3.5% salt) during the dry season.

“The city’s salt farms can produce 45-50 kilos of salt per day from a 3,000-square-meter salt bed. But with years of urbanization, these salt farms gave way to subdivisions and commercial establishments.”

Right now, most of the locally-produced salt comes from Pangasinan, which literally means “land of salt.” Here, salt production begins in October with the cleaning of the tiled beds; this is done until December.

“Salt is then produced by evaporating seawater until May before the rainy season,” Dr. Guerrero wrote. “Salt is also made by boiling brine (concentrated in seawater) in cooking vats.”

In the early 1990s, major salt producers were Bulacan, Pangasinan, Occidental Mindoro, and Cavite. These provinces were the sources of 85% of the country’s annual salt demands; the remaining 15% were imported.

“The Philippines used to be self-sufficient in salt by producing it from seawater,” Dr. Guerrero said. “But with import liberalization, salt farms began to decline in urban areas.”

The decline continued but it was not until in 1995 that the country’s dwindling salt supply was finally felt. As local salt production dipped, salt imports rose.

Currently, only 7% of the country’s salt needs come from local producers; the remaining 93% is imported from other major salt-producing countries. More than 70% of the imports are sourced from Australia, with Thailand and China supplying the remaining needs.

“Evidently, the current state of the Philippine salt sector today displays a stark contrast to what it once was,” commented the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines.

Unless local production intensifies to meet increasing demand, the Philippines “might import as much as 96% of its salt requirements by 2030,” said a CNN report, quoting the Philippine Association of Salt Industry Networks (PhilASIN).

“The (forecast) annual importation by 2030 is about 1.3 million tons worth P6 billion,” PhilASIN president Gerard Khonghun was quoted as saying. “At that point, if we do nothing, by that time, we’ll have 96% imported salt.”

There are several reasons why local salt production declines considerably.

Representative Ron Salo, who heads the technical working group of the House Committee on Agriculture and Food, traced the poor state of development of the salt industry on a series of factors, including an outdated policy regime, low quality control and product improvement, as well as limited development of new production areas.

PhilASIN supports the idea of Dr. Guerrero citing urbanization as the culprit. They said many salt farms – particularly those in Cavite, Las Piñas City, Parañaque City, Bulacan and Iloilo – have been transformed into residential, commercial or industrial areas.

“Maybe some of our people would recall that many decades ago, these areas were having lots of salt production. But these have now been converted without replenishing, without approving new areas for salt making,” Khonghun pointed out.

This is the reason why he is in favor of investing in new salt farms to boost local production. But this could only be attained if the Bureau of Fisheries of Aquatic Resources (BFAR), a line agency of the Department of Agriculture, will support the securement of an estimated 18,888 hectares that could “manufacture the volume of salt needed to meet demand.”

Climate change should not be taken for granted. “The impacts of climate change with heavy rains, floods and erratic weather conditions particularly in coastal areas of the country have also dented salt production,” Dr. Guerrero said.

He cited a survey of salt farmers conducted by Regina Yoma of the University of San Carlos-Cebu. “The prolonged rainy season and rains during the dry season,” Dr. Guerrero reported, “have markedly reduced salt production in Bulacan and Cavite.”

There are laws and there are laws. There are laws that may help the people but there are also laws that may impede the development of the industry that support it. Such was the case of Republic Act No. 8172, or the Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide (ASIN).

In support of the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), ASIN was passed in 1995. The law required that all food-grade salt sold in the country be iodized. “This Act shall apply to the entire salt industry, including salt producers/manufacturers, importers, traders, and distributors as well as government and non-government agencies involved in salt iodization activities,” the law stated.

Because of the said law, it became illegal to sell non-iodized salt. Most of the salt farmers were unintentionally affected as, without the facilities to iodize their salt, their means of livelihood suddenly became illegal.

Salo, who is hoping to make an exemption in the ASIN Law, pointed this out: “… We were basically 100% self-sufficient with respect to salt before the passage of the law. Then later on, we started importing (salt) because our farmers were not able to comply with the iodization requirement.”

As such, the ASIN Law must be amended. In fact, Salo is proposing a measure to exempt Filipino sea salt from mandatory iodization. “We need support, in particular, from the public,” he urged. “It was not prioritized in the 17th Congress because of more pressing measures. I hope in the 18th Congress, it will be prioritized.”

Even if the ASIN Law will be amended, the local salt industry must be modernized. Doing so will enable salt farmers to increase their production. In fact, the Industrial Technology Development Institute of the Department of Science and Technology is introducing new salt production technologies to two of the biggest producers in the country.

In Pacific Farms, Inc., the country’s largest salt producer in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, a new salt bed design and layout were done to lower the cost of production of salt even during the rainy season. The income is further boosted with the additional production of gypsum and bittern, two important minerals in salt making.

In Gozon Development Corporation in Dansol, Pangasinan, three machines were introduced: a salt washer, a spin dryer, and a salt iodizer. “The washer increases salt purity to 97% with the use of saturated brine as a washing medium,” Dr. Guerrero reported. “The dryer reduces the moisture content of the salt to less than 8%, which is lower compared to sun-drying. The iodizer is a portable screw-type machine which uniformly mixes the salt.”

Sodium and chloride ions, the two major components of salt, are necessary for the survival of all living creatures, including human beings. It is involved in regulating the water content (fluid balance) of the body. French physiologist Claude Bernard made that discovery in the mid-1800s, and he realized the fluid must contain the right amounts of sodium, chloride, and potassium to allow our cells to grow, work, and survive. 

Salt is so important that it has been mentioned in the Holy Bible several times. In the English translation of the King James Bible, there are forty-one verses which reference salt, the earliest being the story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobediently looked back at the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:26).  

When King Abimelech destroyed the city of Shechem (Judges 9:45), he is said to have “sowed salt on it” – a phrase expressing the completeness of its ruin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to his followers as the “salt of the earth.”

Ancient Greeks found out that eating salty food affected basic body functions such as digestion and excretion. This led to salt being used medically. The healing methods of Hippocrates (460 BC) especially made frequent use of salt.  Hippocrates mentions inhalation of steam from salt-water.

On the average, the Filipinos’ salt consumption is 11 grams (4,263 milligrams of sodium).

A review of salt intakes in Southeast Asia, the World Action on Salt and Health found that average salt intake in adult females in the Philippines was 7.3 grams per day, which was estimated from 24-hour dietary recalls. Salt intake in the adult population (both sexes) was estimated to be 3.1 grams per day, which was calculated from one-day diet samples and samples of commonly eaten foods which were weighed and chemically analyzed.

Why is this so? It’s because Filipinos love salty food. Most of them use substantial amounts of salt, soy sauce (toyo), fish sauce (patis) and fermented shrimp paste (bagoong) to achieve full flavor. They also love salt dipping sauces (sawsawan). In addition, they like eating dried fish (bulad).

This love for salt is understandable. After all, salt is abundant in a country that is surrounded with oceans and seas.

“Eating salty food is natural for all of us,” explains Meryl Louise T. Lapinig, a mother of two. “Most of us, particularly those living in rural areas and uplands, don’t have refrigerators. We can preserve our food by adding salt or fermenting them.”

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