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The International Year of Rice is more than a call for more recipes

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 13 February 2004


2004 is the International year of Rice. This is the first time that the United Nations, in selecting a theme for a “year”, has opted for a single food crop. The UN is recognising that rice is the primary food source for more than half the world’s population and that enhancing the sustainability of rice production systems will require the commitment of many sectors in a country’s life.

The UN creates “international years” to encourage governmental and non-governmental attention to “important” issues, rather than just “urgent” ones. In politics, the “urgent” tends to overshadow the “important” and so an international year enables non-governmental organisations to pressure politicians into focussing on the long-term important issues. For example, international years can be a coat peg for media statements and activities directed at the creation of ideas for action.

Rice is very important because it is the staple crop for three billion people. About 400 million tonnes gets produced each year. Developing countries account for 95 per cent of this total, with China and India alone accounting for more than 50 per cent.

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Rice is a way of life. It is not just a source of food. It is the basis of many cultures. The UN hopes that the “year” will be used to encourage further improvements in the cultivation of rice.

In a broader sense, I think that the year is important because of the looming world food crisis. We will need as much rice as the earth can grow – along with other sources of food.

The traditional view of the availability of food is that there is plenty of food overall around the world but it is badly distributed. Isolated pockets of famine occur, especially in dictatorial societies. There has never been a famine in a society that has a free media.

The problem, according to that view, comes from government subsidies, not least in the European Union and the United States, which distort the availability of food, with farmers in developed countries being paid not to grow food. If there were more attention to the transportation of food and the elimination of subsides, then all would be well.

But now there is a growing concern that there really is a looming food shortage. Environmental analysts, such as Lester Brown of the Washington DC-based Earth Policy Institute, are now warning that there is a problem with food that cannot be solved just by improving the distribution of food.

For example, the economic rise of China, a country of 1.3 billion consumers enjoying a US$100 billion annual trade surplus with the US alone, has severe implications for the supply of food. China’s dramatic economic growth (which is one of the fastest in world history) is coming at the cost of a loss of topsoil and cropland due to the construction of roads and factories, etc. China’s topsoil is being eroded and carried by winds across the North Pacific and landing on Alaska, Canada and California. (I was in Taiwan in 2001 and some of the haze hanging over the island was reputed to be due to the Chinese soil being transported by the wind east to the Americas).

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China is a major producer of rice and grain. After a remarkable expansion from 90 million tons in the 1950s to its historical peak of 390 millions in 1998, China’s grain harvest has dropped to 330 million in 2003. This drop of 60 million tons exceeds the annual grain harvest of Canada. So far, China has been able to offset the downturn by drawing on its vast stocks of grain. But eventually, those stocks will be run down and China will be competing against domestic American consumers – or Australian ones. The price of grain will go up.

Even more of a nightmare scenario would be the spectre of famine in China with the risk that China falls into chaos. This would have ramifications for the entire world. China is now the world’s second most important economy and the “workshop of the world”. Some countries (including Australia) have given up much of their own manufacturing base because it is cheaper to import items from China. What happens if there is chaos in China and a loss of those items?

In short, the UN has certainly focused on an important issue for this “year”. It is a reminder that we should not take the supply of rice (or any other food) for granted.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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