Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The food crisis in Asia is less serious than many governments believe, and can be confronted with bigger subsidies for poor families and more sensible agriculture policies. Rajat Nag, director general of the Asian Development Bank, attributes the strong rise in the price of rice to external factors as well, like the higher incomes of the Asian population, the high cost of fuel, climate change, and unused land.
In just a few months the price of rice has more than doubled: rice from Thailand, the leading world exporter, has reached the price of 950 dollars per ton, while it cost 383 at the beginning of 2008. Nag is convinced that "the era of cheap food is over", but he repeats that "I don't think we are talking about a famine situation. The supplies are not where we need them and that is a distribution problem". For this reason, he maintains that export bans or price controls are "counterproductive": he is recommending that countries instead raise their subsidies for poor families.
In any case, the rise in food prices is not limited to rice. In China, in the period from January to February, soya prices rose by 41.4%, maize by 14.4%, and wheat by 8.8%. Over the past 30 years, China has redistributed large amounts of farmland to foster industrial and urban development, and rice planting has fallen from 33 million hectares in 1983 to 29 million in 2006, and wheat from 29.5 to 22.9 million hectares in 2006. Meanwhile, the cultivation of soya has risen (from 7.7 million in 1985 to 9.2 8 million in 2006), as well as that of maize (from 18.8 to 26.97). This in spite of the fact that China imports 70 percent of the soya that it consumes, especially for cooking oil.
Beijing has frozen the price of rice, cooking oil, and other foods, to contain rapid inflation. But this is hitting farmers hard, who because of the rise in production costs are seeing their profit margins fall and are pursuing other activities. In order to avoid alarm, president Wen Jiabao recently declared that the country has grain reserves of between 150 and 200 million tonnes, which it could use to keep prices stable. But analysts doubt the reliability of these figures, because corrupt officials may have "inflated" them in order to receive higher subsidies.
In other countries, meanwhile, there are shortages of staple foods. In Pakistan, according to the world food programme of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, between 60 and 77 million people have difficulty buying bread and grains. Once an exporter of food, Pakistan now imports grains, and people stand in line for hours to receive rations of rice or flour that the state sells at affordable prices.
The FAO says that the projected figure of 3.4 billion dollars will no longer be sufficient to feed 73 million people. It is asking international donors for at least an additional 756 million dollars, and has announced that, beginning on May 1, it will have to stop supplying free meals to 450,000 students in 1,344 schools in Cambodia, where about 37 percent of children under the age of 5 are affected by rickets because of poor nutrition.
India is afraid that the record rice and grain harvests expected on June 30 will not be enough for domestic consumption, because at least 10% will be eaten by pests or will rot in inadequate storehouses. (PB)