Increased rice exports a short-term fix

Workers handle sacks of imported rice at a warehouse in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Crude's not the only commodity in the news. There was another dismal outlook on food prices this week from the World Bank, rice in particular. But supply shortages in Asia have forced Japan and several other big rice producers to reconsider their recent export bans.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk Sam Eaton reports.


SAM EATON: In a region of severe rice shortages Japan is the exception. Inside a series of vast, air conditioned warehouses the country has amassed about a million and a half tons of imported rice, mostly from the U.S. The reserve has its roots in a World War II rice shortage that traumatized the nation. But with rice prices nearly tripling over the last year, Japan's emergency reserve is starting to look a lot more like hoarding.

SIMON MAXWELL: We have to be really careful not to talk ourselves into a panic about food prices because there is enough food in the world provided we manage it properly.

That's Simon Maxwell with the London-based Overseas Development Institute. He says releasing even some of that rice, as Japan is now considering, would help ease prices, especially in places where the poor spend up to 80 percent of their income on food.

The World Bank is calling on exporters to release up to a million tons of rice. Vietnam, the world's second-largest rice exporter, said today that it may lift its recent ban on overseas shipments. And Japan has already agreed to sell some of its surplus to the Philippines.

But Harvard University economist Ken Rogoff calls these fixes the political equivalent of a gas-tax holiday.

KEN ROGOFF: It's a gesture that is clearly aimed to please particularly poor people, but it's very, very temporary. It's not a big gesture.

Rogoff says hoarding may be partly to blame for rice's record price tag. But he says the fundamental problem remains: Global demand for nearly every major commodity has outstripped supply.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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