Roots of Asia's rice crisis
Tight supplies reflect population boom and neglect of farming.
Gantallan Plorensio's farm is a paradox at the heart of Asia's growing rice crisis. The fields that get enough water have never been more productive, contributing to a 5 percent annual increase in rice production over the past two years.Skip to next paragraph
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"We have a lot of rice fields, but no irrigation," he says. "They're just sitting there."
As a regional rice crisis looms, threatening political instability and social unrest, the idle fields in Mr. Plorensio's village underscore a failure of policy and foresight repeated across the region: For decades, governments have been encouraging a boom in services and skyscrapers, but not the capacity to grow more rice. Financing in agriculture has stagnated, and fewer farmers are expected to produce more rice for exploding populations.
That neglect is one of the central causes of what some analysts call the "perfect storm" – including rising global oil prices, drought in Australia, and inclement weather – behind the rice crisis.
"It's a failure to recognize the importance of agriculture," says Duncan Macintosh, a spokesman for the International Rice Research Institute, based in Laguna, about 40 miles from Manila, the capital of the Philippines. "Agriculture is becoming a very unfashionable industry."
Philippines at the center of crisis
At the epicenter of the storm is the Philippines, the world's largest importer of rice. The island nation annually imports between 10 to 15 percent of its rice. But because global rice supplies are so tight – causing India, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam to restrict exports – the Philippines is having a hard time fulfilling an import order of around one million tons.
The country is paying exorbitant prices for whatever rice it can get its hands on, driving up prices around the world to double last year's.
Those are just concerns so far in the Philippines, but the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – like the governments of Haiti and Malaysia, among others – has been shaken by the growing crisis and faced with public calls for her ouster.
At the center of the storm lies a simple question: Why can't the Philippines, and other countries in Asia, produce enough rice to feed themselves?
Some reasons are beyond the direct control of the Philippines and other Asian archipelagos like Indonesia and Malaysia. Because their farmland is spread over thousands of miles and different islands, production, maintenance, and transportation make rice cultivation expensive and difficult.