Rice-Producing Nations Cut Exports amid Shortage

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Growing demand and poor harvests are causing a severe shortage of rice in Asia and elsewhere. Where rice is available, prices are high. Rice-producing countries, such as India and China, have limited exports to assure adequate supplies at home.

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People across Asia are also struggling to maintain their standard of living, and there's a basic reason why. Most Asian diets begin with rice, and the price of that basic food is soaring. Demand is up, production is down, and major exporters like Vietnam and India are limiting overseas shipments of rice. The shortage is creating concern about the possibility of social unrest. Here's NPR's Michael Sullivan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: It's early morning in Bac Ninh Province, just outside Hanoi. And the shimmering green rice patties are dotted with conical hats belonging to farmers like Gwen Tieu Lun(ph), hard at work tending the spring crop.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

SULLIVAN: Lun is calf-deep in the oozing muck, clearing weeds and golden snails from the stalks of rice she planted back in February. Come harvest time in May, she expects her crop to fetch a far better price than it did last year, but there's a catch.

Ms. GWEN TIEU LUN (Rice Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Lun says bad weather delayed planting by nearly three weeks, and because of it, she expects her yields to be down about 30 percent. That, she says, along with higher prices for fertilizer and pesticides, means she won't earn as much as she did last year, even though she'll be paid more for her rice per pound.

Mr. ROBERT ZIEGLER (Director General, International Rice Research Institute): Farmers, and poor farmers in particularly, almost always are losers in this game.

SULLIVAN: Robert Ziegler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Manila.

Mr. ZIEGLER: With the rapid rise of fuel prices, fertilizer prices have gone through the roof. So both nitrogen and potassium, two key elements for rice, the prices have sky-rocketed. So she's right. She's not going to see much if any benefit form the rising prices.

SULLIVAN: Bad weather, pests, and less land under cultivation are contributing to a decrease in production and an increase in price in Vietnam and elsewhere, leading major rice exporters like Vietnam to reduce exports to satisfy demand at home. And that's bad news for countries that can't feed themselves.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: A lot of what Vietnam does export comes here to the Philippines, where as in much of Asia, rice is served at every meal. Vendors and customers at this market in the capital, Manila, say the price of rice has gone up nearly 30 percent in the past two months alone, and is now out of reach for many urban poor, who depend instead on subsidized, but often scare supplies of rice from the government.

Ms. LEONORE BATING(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Leonore Bating has a husband, two kids and not much work. When she can't find a subsidized government rice, she says, she has no choice but to pay for rice at market prices. And in the past month, she says, she's had to cut back on meals as a result and serve smaller portions just to get by. Higher prices for rice may also jeopardize efforts by aid agencies to provide food assistance to people in need. Here in the Philippines, the World Food Program currently feeds about 1.6 million people on the southern island of Mindanao. But deputy country director Alghassim Wurie is concerned what might happen if rice gets even more expensive and additional funds aren't found to procure it.

Mr. ALGHASSIM WURIE (WFP Deputy Country Director, Philippines): If we are unable to make our targets, we'll do one of two things. Either reduce what we put out to feed, or give these people rations, because what we have to give them.

SULLIVAN: Last month, the WFP launched an emergency appeal for an additional $500 million to help it cope with a dramatic increase in food and fuel prices world wide.

Mr. ZIEGLER: We need to recognize that the potential disruptive power of food shortages is enormous.

SULLIVAN: Again, Robert Ziegler of the International Rice Research Institute.

Mr. ZIEGLER: Look at the government's reactions. Vietnam is blocking exports. India is blocking exports. China has blocked exports of rice. Now the reason you do that is to make sure that your own populations are adequately fed. And why do you care about that? Because if they're not adequately fed, you're going to hear about it.

SULLIVAN: And governments are already hearing about it in parts of Africa and in Haiti, where food riots last weeks left five people dead. Africa, Ziegler says, is especially sensitive to changes in Asian rice production. Nearly half the rice consumed in sub-Saharan Africa, Ziegler says, comes from Asia, meaning shortages here will felt there, too, and the poor, he says, will bear the brunt of them.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Manila.

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