Joe Turner and Lester Brown have previously written about rising food prices and the connection to biofuel production. In January, rising corn prices led to protests in Mexico City with 75,000 demonstrators taking to the streets. According to U.S. News & World Report, protests have also taken place this year in Italy over rising pasta prices from the increased cost of wheat, in India over onion prices, in Indonesia with soaring soybean prices and in Burkina Faso, where things turned violent with demonstrators looting and burning government buildings over rising grain prices. Now, with a 30% increase in rice prices in a single day on March 27th, there are some very real fears about social unrest and possible violence in Asia where rice is a staple for more than 2.5 billion people.
Rice is just following in the footsteps of wheat, corn and other agricultural staples which have all seen drastic price increases over the past year. Several factors are affecting rice prices, including low global rice stocks, major exporters like Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia and India curtailing or outright banning sales abroad in order to maintain domestic prices. At the same time, other countries like the Philippines are announcing plans to make major grain purchases in order to replenish dwindling supplies and cover its own production shortfalls.
According to the Financial Times, the recent export restrictions have taken almost a third of globally traded rice off the international market. This is bad news for both importing and exporting countries alike where locals will not be able to afford a main staple of their diet. Concurrent rising prices for other grains leave few alternatives for the poor. Already several small, poor African countries, including Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal, have seen social unrest over the high cost of food in general.
And why are places like the Philippines experiencing rice production shortfalls? According to the BBC back in 2004, the reason is global climate change. It is interesting that the recent articles on the surging prices don’t mention this. A 25 year temperature study and a 12 year rice production study demonstrated that for every degree of warming, rice yields drop 10%. And it’s not just temperature overall, it’s actually the warmer night time temperatures that has the adverse effect. At the same time, population increases require a 1% annual increase in rice production to keep up with demand. The Japan Times took a rather bleak view of the situation back in September, warning that we could see a 40% decrease in rice yields globally by the end of the century.
And what are the poor to do when they have no bread, no rice, no tortillas? If recent historians are correct, even Marie Antoinette was not really callous enough to have responded so flippantly to the poor protesting over rising bread prices in France in the 1780s. It is still not clear how today’s leaders will respond, though. If U.S. inaction on climate change and the continuing push for corn based biofuels are any indication, it might as well be “let them eat mud.”