ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46

Thais guard their fields as rice prices soar

By Thanaporn Promyamyai

BANGLANE, Thailand, (AFP) - Crime had never really been a problem in Takham Uthao's impoverished rice farming village in central Thailand until prices for his crop began hitting record highs. The price of Thai rice jumped 50 percent last month to levels never before seen, turning the output from Takham's paddy fields into a far more valuable commodity just as the harvest was getting underway.

Now staving off thieves from his paddies is part of his daily routine."I always have to listen closely and act fast if my dogs bark, so I can run to see what's going on," the 48-year-old farmer told AFP. Takham said he can't blame people for stealing a bit of his crop as soaring global rice prices have pushed up costs at home too and food inflation has made pork, chicken and even vegetables more expensive.

A boy working in a rice field

But rice is the biggest problem, he said, because without it Thais do not feel as if they have had a real meal. "Rice is life," Takham said. Rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population, and plays an important role not just at mealtime but in religious festivals and celebrations.

So far, thieves have only taken a small part of Takham's crop, but countries across Asia are training a keen eye on harvests by Thai farmers such as him as their output will have an enormous bearing on what people in the region eat this year -- and how much they'll pay for it.

Floods in Bangladesh, pests in Vietnam and bad weather in China have all cut into rice supplies at a time when Asia's national stockpiles were already low, said Concepcion Calpe, a senior economist monitoring the rice market for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Because of the kind of pressure that (reduced stocks) was putting on prices, the exporters responded by limiting exports and pushing up prices even more," she said.

-- 'Rice is life' --

Thailand is the world's leading exporter of rice, shipping an estimated 9.5 million tonnes overseas last year. Although exporters stand to benefit from the high prices, India and Vietnam -- the world's second and third biggest exporters respectively -- are restricting exports amid fears they will not have enough for their domestic markets.

That has left rice importers such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka scrambling to sew up deals to guarantee their own supplies. The benchmark Thai variety, Pathumthani fragrant rice, was priced on Wednesday at 930 dollars per tonne, up 52 percent from a month earlier, the Thai Rice Exporters Association said in its weekly price survey.

The Philippines on Friday announced major new investments to boost agricultural production but to deal with the short-term problem, officials have resorted to asking restaurants to offer half portions of rice to avoid wastage. The country's biggest fastfood chain, Jollibee, has already agreed to halve its rice servings.

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