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Grain prices soar globally

Rice shortages are appearing across Asia. In Egypt, the Army is now baking bread to curb food riots.

By Daniel Ten KateCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2008

Prized rice: Cambodia ordered a two-month ban Wednesday on exports of rice to neighboring countries to try to keep prices under control. Above, a rice vendor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Heng sinith/AP

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Bangkok, Thailand -

Rice farmers here are staying awake in shifts at night to guard their fields from thieves. In Peru, shortages of wheat flour are prompting the military to make bread with potato flour, a native crop. In Egypt, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso food riots have broken out in the past week.

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Around the world, governments and aid groups are grappling with the escalating cost of basic grains. In December, 37 countries faced a food crisis, reports the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and 20 nations had imposed some form of food-price controls.

In Asia, where rice is on every plate, prices are shooting up almost daily. Premium Thai fragrant rice now costs $900 per ton, a nearly 30 percent rise from a month ago.

Exporters say the price could eclipse $1,000 per ton by June. Similarly, prices of white rice have climbed about 50 percent since January to $600 per ton and are projected to jump another 40 percent to $800 per ton in April.

The skyrocketing prices have prompted millers to default on rice supply contracts and bandits to steal rice as they aim to hoard the crop, and sell it later, as prices continue to rise.

“The farmers are afraid as their fields have been robbed in the nighttime,” says Sarayouth Phumithon, an official at the Thai government’s Bureau of Rice Strategy and Supply. “This is just the beginning. The problem will get worse if the price keeps increasing.”

The reported thefts in five rice-growing provinces in central Thailand are the first signs of criminal activity in this region stemming from the sharpest global spike in commodity prices since the oil crisis in the mid-1970s. Across the world, higher food prices are triggering thefts and violence – both by people who can’t afford to eat and those who want to make an easy buck.

Three men delivering food for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Sudan were reported killed Tuesday, the latest in a surge of attacks that have delayed the arrival of vital supplies to some 2 million people in the region.

So far this year, the UN agency says 56 trucks have been hijacked in Sudan; 36 trucks remain missing, and 24 drivers are unaccounted for. The WFP says that banditry has reduced by half the amount of food normally transported to the western region of Darfur at this time of year.