WASHINGTON — Arnong Mungoei has farmed rice in Thailand’s Khon Kaen province for half a century.
Working land some 500 kilometers northeast of Bangkok never made her rich, but it provided a dependable livelihood.
But since February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, global geopolitical tensions and weather conditions elsewhere have upended the rice markets and by 2023, worldwide rice prices had exploded.
Yet Arnong said she made less than she has in years.
“The mills [that buy rice] don’t increase the price. What can I do? I bring rice there to sell. Whatever they offer us, we have to sell it. We won’t take the rice back because we had to pay for the truck,” said Arnong, 68.
In 2023, the prices of wheat and grains such as oats and corn declined 20% to 30% as stocks were replenished, according to an annual report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
But according to the FAO report, rice prices remained high throughout the year due to a persistent La Niña in March, followed by an El Niño anomaly in June and India imposing restrictions on non-basmati rice in July due after a late monsoon raised fears of a production shortfall.
India’s export control removed 9 million metric tons of grain from the international market and ignited global prices. India is responsible for 40% of global rice supplies after overtaking Thailand as the world’s largest rice exporter in 2011.
The countries most reliant on India’s rice include the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, and Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal in West Africa.
“Rice is tough, because there are just not a lot of other suppliers,” Joseph Glauber, a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, told Bloomberg in November, adding that India’s export-control policy leaves “a big hole to fill.”
The World Bank predicted, “Rice prices will remain high into 2024, assuming India maintains its export restrictions. The outlook assumes a moderate-to-strong El Niño.”
The bank’s commodity report published on Oct. 30 said rice prices had reached their highest point in the third quarter of 2023 since the 2007-2008 food crises due to the Hamas-Israel conflict and El Niño.
While India’s controls benefit its own consumers, for the billions elsewhere in Asia and in Africa who depend on a stable rice supply, continued high prices could increase food insecurity.
In Nigeria, the cost of rice increased 61% from September through November. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast the nation would import 2.1 million metric tons of rice in 2024.
In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. imposed a price cap Sept. 5 after the cost of rice hit a 14-year high in September. Marcos, who blamed the soaring prices on “smugglers, hoarders and price manipulators,” removed the cap Oct. 13 as concerns over tight supply eased.
Alfie Pulumbarit, national coordinator at MASIPAG, a Philippine-based network of farmers, scientists and nongovernmental organizations working on farmer empowerment, told VOA Thai that rising food prices significantly affected the people in the island nation with “a lot of families now going hungry.”
Citing official information, Pulumbarit said that while it takes a person at least 79 pesos or about $1.50 dollars per day to survive in the Philippines, rice now costs $1.10 dollars per kilogram.
Continued Indian controls coupled with farmers “already leaving rice production in the Philippines” could lead to “a food crisis of epic proportions,” he said.
Climate is one of the key factors in analyses for rice production and price in the coming year.
The U.S. National Weather Service forecasts that the Northern Hemisphere, home to major rice producers like China, India, and Southeast Asia nations, will likely be affected by El Niño April through June, right around sowing season for rice across Asia.
An Asian Bank Development analysis recommends that the private sector should assume a bigger role in rice trading to help stabilize domestic production loss in importing countries. It also encourages policymakers to consider more sustainable rice production.
“Rice paddy is responsible for 12% of global methane emissions and 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In Asia, rice irrigation consumes more than half of freshwater resources,” according to the analysis.
As the COP 28 meeting at Dubai was concluding, the FAO suggested stakeholders should seek out climate-friendly cultivating techniques ranging from using fertilizers that can reduce methane emission to growing plants that create rhizobacteria, which may promote producing oxygen in soil.
Smanachan Buddhajak contributed to this report.