09/18/2007, 00.00
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Soaring bread prices cause concern and protests in Central Asia

Bread and wheat are basic staples for the poor, who have already had to cut back on meat and butter. For experts local prices reflect world trends and hikes are here to stay. Governments caught off guard now scrambling to find solutions.

Astana (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Street protests have set off alarm bells in the media of several Central Asian nations following the rapid rise in the price of bread, flour and other wheat products. Many fear that soaring costs might continue because of the international situation forcing governments to take emergency measures.

Bread and wheat products are staple food in local populations; many have already cut down on other staples such as meat and butter because of higher prices.

In Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, many families cook bread at home but in September the price of flour rose 60 per cent, from 20 to 32 US dollars for a 50-kilogram sack. For a local resident, Rahmatullo Saidov, this is hard since his family needed three sacks of flour per month and his monthly salary was only 22 US dollars.

On world markets the price of a bushel of wheat has reached US$ 9. This is because some of the world's major producers like Australia and Canada have had relatively bad harvests this year and next year things do not look much rosier. Increasingly wheat is also being used to make biofuels, a cleaner alternative to oil.

But not is all bad. Kazakhstan, which is the main wheat exporter for Central Asia, expects it will actually have a record harvest this year of some 20 million tonnes.

Galina Alekseyeva, an analyst at the Almaty-based Institute of Economy and Rural Development, told Radio Free Europe that Kazakh wheat producers are raising the price of their wheat despite having an expected abundant harvest. Electricity and fuel have become slightly more expensive, and local wheat producers “are anticipating that the new harvest will enter the market with a higher price.”

High prices have brought the residents of some Uzbek towns into the streets, and have caused a media frenzy in Tajikistan and angered consumers there and in Kyrgyzstan.

The Uzbek government has put pressure on private businesses not to increase bread prices. But the measure has forced some vendors to shut down at the prospect of losing money.

Turkmenistan has even tried to begin growing its own grain. However, the domestic wheat is hugely unpopular with consumers, who complain about its extremely low quality.

In Kyrgyzstan the government called on parliament to approve additional funds to import more flour from Kazakhstan and buy more agricultural products from Kyrghiz farmers to sell at fixed prices.

Analysts point out that in these countries cotton production was favoured so that they now cannot meet their own domestic demands in wheat. Switching to wheat production would take time and require government support to be profitable enough.

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