Rice crisis is 'as bad as it has ever been'

A Thai worker loads rice into a bag at a rice mill on in Suphan-Buri, Thailand.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Obviously it's prices that're generating food shortages, whether the scarcity's real or perceived. Rice hit another record today. It's up 146 percent over the past 12 months, expensive for Americans, downright dangerous for many of the world's poorest consumers. Per Pinstrup-Andersen teaches public policy at Cornell University. Professor, good to have you with us.

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Good to be here.

RYSSDAL: That piece we just heard about retailers worried about hoarding here in the United States, how does that strike you, that news?

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: I don't really think retail stores should get in the business of writing quotas of food for people. Let the market work.

RYSSDAL: On a wider sense, this global food crisis that we are having here, first of all, is "crisis" the right word?

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Yes it is. For people who cannot afford to buy the food they need to feed their kids, we have a real crisis, and it is worse than it was before.

RYSSDAL: Historically, how much worse? Where does this rank?

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: This is probably about as bad as it has ever been. About 34 years ago we had another food crisis, where prices were extremely high, but prices have dropped so much during these 30 or so years, up until five years ago, and of course wages were lower because of that, so now with this abrupt increase in food prices, a lot of people are caught in a squeeze. They simply cannot afford to buy enough food.

RYSSDAL: People who can't afford to eat, obviously become very unhappy very quickly. We've seen riots in Haiti. We've seen bread-line riots in Egypt. How equipped are the governments of some of these countries to deal with food riots and social unrest?

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Well the governments have been very complacent with respect to investment in rural infrastructure, such as roads and markets and institutions and so on, and that's one of the reasons why many of the poor people in developing countries, even though they are in agriculture, they are net buyers of food. They simply cannot produce what they need. Could the government turn this around now? Yes, I think they have to. It's going to take time, and in the meantime, we from outside of the developing countries, have to provide the necessary emergency food aid to such organizations as the World Food Program, so that we can help the people who are currently starving, but at the same time, we have to help developing countries get their priorities right in the longer term, by investing in rural infrastructure and so on.

RYSSDAL: Are there governments around the world that could conceivably fall because of this crisis?

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Traditionally, Asian governments depend very much on the rice price, and if the rice price increases significantly, close to an election, the sitting governments usually don't make it, so, and right now rice prices are extremely high, and therefore, the Asian government, say the government of the Philippines, and a number of other Asian governments, are concerned about their legitimacy. The rice price is really important.

RYSSDAL: Is there a solution that could get us back to the era of cheaper food, or are those days gone forever?

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: No, those days are not gone forever. Yes, we will get back to lower food prices, but it's going to take awhile. We have to make the investments that will make it possible for farmers to respond to the current higher food prices. I believe we're going to have more food produced this year than we ever had before, in countries such as Brazil, Thailand, Ukraine and Australia, so I think over the next five to six years, we're going to see decreasing food prices.

RYSSDAL: Per Pinstrup-Andersen is professor of food, nutrition and public policy at Cornell University. Professor, thanks for your time.

PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: It was my pleasure. Thank you very much.

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