Nothing could be as much a mirror of poor people’s food plight as Thai farmers reportedly conducting armed vigils in their rice fields at night to prevent thieves from reaping the crop.
As a measure against nocturnal rice thefts, Thai authorities introduced a 6 p.m. curfew on combine harvesters, vehicles used to harvest the crop.
In Thailand, as in many parts of Asia, the price of rice has gone up dramatically in recent months tempting greedy and corrupt dealers to use any means available to get a hold of the pricey grain for either sell or hoarding. In fact, the hoarding of rice has been blamed for the price spirals forcing governments to impose buying rations.
According to the Asia Development Bank (ADB), approximately 1 billion Asians need assistance to cope with soaring food prices and shortages.
The purchasing power of many of Asia’s poor has been seriously eroded reversing previous gains made in fighting poverty.
The International Herald Tribune describes rice, a staple food for half of the global population, as one of the “world’s most politically fragile crop.”
Like the price of rice, general food prices are on the rise in many parts of the world, forcing poor people to protest — sometimes violently — against governments.
Food riots have erupted in countries such as Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Senegal and Somalia, among others, threatening national stability or exacerbating conflict. Poor people, particularly children and those living with diseases, face the risk of malnutrition or death due to inadequate diets.
“It’s the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” Jeffrey Sachs, and economist and UN special adviser recently told The New York Times. “It’s a big deal and it’s obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there’s more political fallout to come.”
Experts say that food reserves are at their lowest in 35 years, and there is a systemic imbalance between the forces of supply and demand that cannot be fixed in the short term. UN statistics show that global food prices have risen by 65 percent since 2002 to levels increasingly beyond the reach of the poor.
The current food quagmire has been festering over the years with little to no media attention.
“In the seven of the last eight years consumption has exceeded production, which can happen only if we draw down our stocks. The carryover, the grain in the bin when a new harvest begins, is the seminal indicator of food security, and it’s now down to 54 days consumption, not much than is needed to fill the supply line,” says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute.
Nearly 1.7 billion people in Asia — three times the population of Europe — live on less than US$2 a day, and to them the spiraling food prices are like a shockwave.
“The world’s food import bill will rise in 2007 to $745 billion, up 21% from last year, the FAO estimated in its biannual Food Outlook. In developing countries, costs will go up by a quarter to nearly $233 billion,” reports Time Magazine.
Asia’s poor are particularly vulnerable to rising food prices for staples such as rice because 60 percent of their spending goes toward food and the figure rises to 75 percent if transport costs are included, according to the ADB.
Many countries in the region have resorted to banning food exports and imposing price controls; however, the ADB warns that this could worsen the crisis, as farmers will stop growing crops that bring a negative return on investment.
An assortment of causes have been cited for the ongoing food crisis from climate change, population growth, increased consumption of meat in Asia, particularly India and China, a ballooning oil price, focus on bio-fuels to greed and corruption.
According to experts, the transportation of specific commodities over long distances chews up a lot of oil, which in a context of a skyrocketing oil price is responsible for the food price hikes.
Also, the fact that many people in Asia and other parts of the world now eat like North Americans is also an underlying factor for the upward spiral of food prices. The more people eat meat, the less food will be available to satiate empty bellies of the poor because grains meant for human beings go to fattening chickens and animals for meat. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world’s poor, says the World Watch Institute.
In addition, the increased commercialization of agriculture has negatively impacted the productivity of small farmers. Consequently, small farmers opt to abandon the land, and trek to urban areas in search of proverbial greener pastures.
According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) report between 2000 and 2030, Asia’s urban population is expected to increase from 1.36 billion to 2.64 billion, putting pressure on urban areas which are already incapable of meeting everyone’s food needs.
As the Asian food story reveals, to avert a global food crisis requires a multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional approach that employs short term and long-term measures.
In the short term, bilateral and multi-lateral agencies can lend monetary support and food aid to help seriously affected countries cope with the food crisis. While government subsidies can help the poor to withstand the food crisis, it is not a sustainable strategy in the long-term.
National governments will need to invest in agricultural systems in a manner that keeps small farmers engaged in the production of food with a guarantee of support, fair compensation and improved access to market information.
The ADB recommends that farmers need to have access to reliable and affordable seed, fertilizers, pesticides and credit.
In the long-term, agricultural research, improvement of irrigation systems and the development of new technologies, including improved seed and crop varieties suited to specific climatic conditions, are essential to improving yields.
The use of low cost technologies such as drip kits and treadle pumps can also help farmers to make optimum use of land and water in the face of global warming. Labor-saving technologies that will adapt agriculture to new conditions generated by rural-to-urban migration can help to compensate for the depletion of labor.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon succinctly put it, the longer-term challenge is to boost agricultural development, particularly in Africa and other regions most affected.
With increased political will, fair trade and investments into agricultural systems, hopefully rice farmers in Thailand will, once again, have nights filled with sleep unafraid of waking up to a bare rice field harvested by some unscrupulous characters bent on making a quick dollar.