Asia limits rice exports as prices and uncertainty rise
Top exporters are trading less of the staple food, hurting countries that rely on imports.
Asia, home to many of the world's top rice suppliers, accounts for 76 percent of the 30 million tons of the staple food exported each year. Prices are shooting up worldwide, in part because many of those countries have cut back on exports due to fears of shortage. The food-price crisis has underscored that, as a region, Asia is divided into "rice haves" – where domestic production is enough to feed the population – and "rice have-nots," which consistently rely on imports. Correspondent David Montero provides a snapshot of rice supplies around the region:Skip to next paragraph
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Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice, with 31 percent of the global market. In 2007, it exported 9.4 million tons of rice, out of a total 20 million tons produced. Unlike many Asian countries, it has not imposed any export restrictions, and this year it expects to export between 8.75 million and 9 million tons.
Yet prices of rice have doubled in the country since the beginning of the year, fueling fears of inflation and hoarding. But the government has stockpiled 2.1 million tons of rice, and no shortages are expected.
Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the world, with about 20 percent of the global market. It has said it will limit exports of rice to 3.5 million tons, down from 4.5 tons last year. The announcement contributed to global prices of rice doubling since January. Consumer prices in Vietnam, meanwhile, increased by 20 percent in March, a 12-year record.
India exports about 4 million tons of rice a year, making it the world's third-largest exporter. But because food prices have risen by 8.3 percent in the past year, it has also imposed restrictions on exports of rice. That is putting a considerable strain on world prices and supplies, experts say.
Pakistan exported 3.3 million tons of rice last year, making it the fifth-largest exporter just behind the United States. But exports this year are expected to fall by 15 percent to 2.8 million, mainly due to power shortages, according to Pakistani officials.
Since rice is not a staple food in Pakistan – wheat is – the government has not placed the same kind of restrictions as other Asia countries. With rice in tight supply, many countries are pinning their hopes on Pakistan's exports.
China is the world's largest producer and consumer of rice, with annual supplies large enough to feed its population. It exported 1.4 million tons of rice last year. But food prices jumped 21 percent in March alone, and consumer prices reached an 11-year high in February of 8.7 percent. To dampen price increases, China imposed strict export restrictions on rice, which is expected to result in a drop of 300,000 tons to the global market. This week it also imposed a six-month tariff on fertilizer exports, to help shore up domestic supply.
Cambodia produced 3.6 million tons of rice last year, according to official estimates. Two million are needed for domestic consumption, leaving Cambodia with about 1.6 million tons in surplus. Last year it exported 450,000 tons of rice, according to the US Department of Agriculture. But this year it may not: In late March, Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed a two-month ban on all exports, hoping to curb the spiraling domestic price of rice. The rate of food inflation reached 24 percent in March, the highest level in a decade.
Indonesia, one of the world's leading consumers of rice, usually imports large quantities of the grain to feed its 233 million people – making it particularly vulnerable to the rice crisis. But this year it expects to harvest 32.6 million tons, about 1.2 million more than it needs for domestic consumption. The surplus comes thanks to an expansion in the harvested farmland area and improved yields. Accordingly, rice prices have only increased by 7 percent this year, much less than in the rest of Asia, which has seen a rise of about 50 percent.