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Rice

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“The struggle of the 'East' versus the 'West' in Asia is in part a race for production, and rice is the symbol and substance of it.” – Foreign Affairs, 1953

Here's some food for thought . The US has just 0.79 per cent of the world's rice land under cultivation and with that it controls 12.7 per cent of the rice exports. With more and more patents going to American multinationals, that figure could rise dramatically in the next couple of decades.

    US Foreign Policy and Rice   

Hybrids and genetically modified rice crops have transformed the entire rice industry of the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century. While the debate rages on whether that has contributed to the overall good of the region, it is interesting to study the linkage between US post-war foreign policy and rice. The book Rice Science and Development Politics explains this in detail.

When America looked to the developing world after the Second World War, it was concerned with two issues. The first was economics. It sought new frontier markets and came to the conclusion that it wouldn't get good trading partners unless the issue of food security was sorted out. The second was ideology. The US was scared that "unstable" nations would lean towards communism.

So in the fifties, rice production was put at the centre of an American strategy to address food insecurity and political unrest. The Rockefeller and Ford foundations patronised the International Rice Research Institute, which in turn led to the Green Revolution and dramatic rise in the production of rice (and wheat).

In Myanmar, people eat half a kilogram of rice a DAY

    Chemicals and Credit   

However, traditional practices that had been practiced for centuries were thrown out unceremoniously. In came rice varieties that required high inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, for which farmers had to rely on credit. It has also replaced diversity with uniformity and transformed farmers into mere farm workers.

All the "miracle" rice varieties produce little in the absence of liberal doses of chemical fertilisers and costly pesticides. And today they dominate the market. Extensive use of pesticides has also led to contamination of agricultural land and groundwater all across in developing countries.

    Capturing The Seed Market   

Interestingly, the commercial rice seed market is the only rice market where Asia doesn't dominate, accounting for less than a quarter of the $32 billion market. But there are other issues involved. Multinational seed corporations all run rice programmes in a bid to dominate and expand the seed market. Hybrids power seed markets.

Most of these do not reproduce and so force farmers to purchase new seeds every season. Rice, however, is a self-pollinating crop, making hybrid rice seed production costly and difficult, and nearly all rice in Asia is still grown with farmer-saved seed.

The seed industry believes that the combination of genetic engineering and patents can overcome this hurdle. Through patents and contractual agreements, seed companies will seek to prohibit farmers from sharing or saving seed, control what pesticides are used and even assert ownership rights over the harvest.

 

“Henry Saragih, an Indonesian delegate to the World Social Forum in 2001, cited the example of low rice prices (the result of imports of the grain from the United States), which are devastating the rice farmers in his country. The same dynamic affects European farmers, who face bankruptcy from a system that favours only the big farms, said Egidio Brunetto, a leader of Brazil’s Movimento dos Sem Terra’ (landless movement) underscoring their common struggle worldwide.”

    High Price. Low Price   

America and India handle their rice markets very differently. While the US pampers its farmers and pushes the rice price as up as it can to maximise its profits, India penalises its marketeers if they don’t keep the rice price down so that the poor can afford it.

That illustrates the rich-poor country divide in rice. Wealthier countries use a combination of domestic market interventions and border protection or export subsidies depending on whether they are importers or exporters. In contrast, poor developing countries in Asia tax rice producers, with domestic prices often less than three-fourths of world prices. Domestic controls are aplenty and diverse. Most of these countries have some form of price support system. These support prices are almost always below the international prices. (Rice Trade Liberalisation and Poverty, Gulati and Narayanan, EPW)

The average European eats about 3 kgs of rice a YEAR

 

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