Where now for the global rice market?

 Mahabub Hossain   |  

Several factors are combining to slow the growth in demand for rice. Rapid urbanization and increases in per capita income, particularly in the middle-and high-income countries of Asia and Latin America, are prompting people to diversify their diets, and successful population control has reduced population growth rates in countries such as China, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Although growth in demand for rice is likely to continue to decline, it may be offset by increased rice consumption due to poverty reduction among low-income households. Growth in production may also slow because of the growing scarcity of land, labor, and water. Assuming annual population growth of 1–1.5% per year, demand for rice in Asia may increase a total 10–15% over the next decade. In addition, demand for rice could increase at 3–4% per year in regions outside Asia.

An important implication of growing urbanization is that some fertile rice lands must be diverted to meet the demand for housing, factories, and roads. Also, as food habits change, markets for vegetables, fruits, and livestock products will grow stronger. Thus, there will be economic pressure to reduce the area under rice cultivation to accommodate agricultural diversification in favor of higher-value crops. Further, Asia’s expansion of the nonfarm sector and subsequent increased rural-urban migration are leading to rural labor shortages and higher rural labor wage rates, further discouraging labor-intensive rice farming.

The major increase in demand for rice will come from countries in West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and South America. In many countries in these regions, per capita consumption has been increasing rapidly with rural-urban migration that leads to a change in food habit from diets based on maize or root crops to rice-based diets. Also, the population continues to grow quickly, particularly in Africa.

The international trade in rice has remained limited. About 7% of the world’s rice production is traded internationally, in contrast to nearly 18% for wheat and 12% for coarse grains. The global rice market has expanded rapidly, however, over the past three decades. Average yearly imports of rice increased from 8.0 million tons (4.0% of production) in 1968-70 to 27 million tons in 2004-06.

After adjusting for inflation, the real price of rice in the world market in 2006 was about 25% lower than in 1985 (see figure). The long-term decline in the real price of rice has contributed to the achievement of food security, particularly in low income, food-deficit countries in South and Southeast Asia, where many households spend over half their income on rice. The continuous decline in the real price of rice has thus helped to reduce poverty in Asia.

Two contrasting developments may substantially affect the rice economy in the future. First, as prosperous rice-growing countries move toward free trade in agricultural production, they may increasingly find it difficult to sustain producers’ interest in rice farming. Economic pressure is likely to move land, water, and labor away from rice to other activities. Second, the potential for increased productivity for the irrigated ecosystem, created by the dramatic genetic enhancement of seeds in the 1960s, has almost been exploited.

The rainfed ecosystem, which accounts for about 45% of global rice area, will have to bear the major burden of a future increase in rice production. The potential for increasing yield in the rainfed ecosystem is vast, as yield is now only 1.5–2.5 tons per hectare.

Adequate investment for development, validation, and dissemination of appropriate technologies, particularly for rainfed ecosystems, will be needed to support farmers’ efforts to increase rice supplies to match the growing demand emanating mostly from the increase in population in low-income countries.

Mahabub Hossain is the Executive director of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

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