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Myanmar cyclone adds to rice woes

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BOB MOON: The military government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, says the death toll from the powerful cyclone that hit the country this week has risen above 20,000. All the more incredible: 40,000 people are still missing.

U.N. relief agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands of survivors urgently need food and shelter. And that’s just the short-term challenge. As Marketplace’s Steve Henn reports, the storm will keep sending ripples through rice markets across the world for some time to come.

STEVE HENN: The cyclone slammed into the heart of Myanmar’s rice-growing region. And that won’t help rice prices, say traders. Poor harvests and rising demand have pushed prices through the roof, and Myanmar was expected to sell half a million tons of rice abroad this year. Now, those sales are in doubt.

The country isn’t a major rice supplier, but it’s growing in importance. And this morning the price of rice soared half a world away.

I reached John Casey on his cell phone trading in the rice pit at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

JOHN CASEY: It’s a sizable amount. And in a situation like this it could very well make a difference. Look for new highs — new high prices.

Higher food prices are straining the budgets of international aid organizations now rushing relief into Myanmar. Bettima Lauscher is with the U.N.’s World Food Program.

Bettima Lauscher: We have made an urgent appeal to the world to give us extra funding. Because our food prices have gone up. Between June and February they have gone up by like 55 percent.

And that was just the beginning.

Lauscher: In early March we paid like $460 per metric ton of rice in Bangkok. And just last week or so it was $1,200. And that, of course, was all before any of this devastation.

The World Food Program is distributing more than 800 tons of food to cyclone survivors. But what Lauscher calls the silent tsunami of rising food prices could impact hundres of millions more across the globe.

In Washington, I’m Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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