[permaculture] A Drought In Australia, A Global Shortage of Rice

Andrew French alienbuddha at gmail.com
Fri Apr 18 09:58:09 EDT 2008

April 17, 2008
A Drought in Australia, a Global Shortage of RiceBy KEITH

DENILIQUIN, Australia<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/australia/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>
Lindsay Renwick, the mayor of this dusty southern Australian town, remembers
the constant whir of the rice mill. "It was our little heartbeat out there,
tickety-tick-tickety," he said, imitating the giant fans that dried the
rice, "and now it has stopped."

The Deniliquin mill, the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere, once
processed enough grain to meet the needs of 20 million people around the
world. But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia's
rice crop by 98 percent and leading to the mothballing of the mill last

Ten thousand miles separate the mill's hushed rows of oversized silos and
sheds — beige, gray and now empty — from the riotous streets of
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but a widening global crisis unites them.

The collapse of Australia's rice production is one of several factors
contributing to a doubling of rice prices in the last three months —
increases that have led the world's largest exporters to restrict exports
severely, spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and
set off violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia,
Haiti, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand,
Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Drought affects every agricultural industry based here, not just rice — from
sheepherding, the other mainstay in this dusty land, to the cultivation of
wine grapes, the fastest-growing crop here, with that expansion often coming
at the expense of rice.

The drought's effect on rice has produced the greatest impact on the rest of
the world, so far. It is one factor contributing to skyrocketing prices, and
many scientists believe it is among the earliest signs that a warming planet
is starting to affect food production.

It is difficult to definitely link short-term changes in weather to
long-term climate
but the unusually severe drought is consistent with what climatologists
predict will be a problem of increasing frequency.

Indeed, the chief executive of the National Farmers' Federation in
Australia, Ben Fargher, says, "Climate change is potentially the biggest
risk to Australian agriculture."

Drought has already spurred significant changes in Australia's agricultural
heartland. Some farmers are abandoning rice, which requires large amounts of
water, to plant less water-intensive crops like wheat or, especially here in
southeastern Australia, wine grapes. Other rice farmers have sold fields or
water rights, usually to grape growers.

Scientists and economists worry that the reallocation of scarce water
resources — away from rice and other grains and toward more lucrative crops
and livestock — threatens poor countries that import rice as a dietary

The global agricultural crisis is threatening to become political, pitting
the United States and other developed countries against the developing world
over the need for affordable food versus the need for renewable energy. Many
poorer nations worry that subsidies from rich countries to support biofuels,
which turn food, like corn, into fuel, are pushing up the price of staples.
The World Bank<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/w/world_bank/index.html?inline=nyt-org>
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
on major agricultural nations to overhaul policies to avoid a social
explosion from rising food

With rice, which is not used to make biofuel, the problem is availability.
Even in normal times, little of the world's rice is actually exported — more
than 90 percent is consumed in the countries where it is grown. In the last
quarter-century, rice consumption has outpaced production, with global
reserves plunging by half just since 2000. A plant disease is hurting
harvests in Vietnam, reducing supply. And economic uncertainty has led
producers to hoard rice and speculators and investors to see it as a
lucrative or at least safe bet.

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