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Experts Warn of Problems in Asia's Rice Supply

Asia is the world's rice bowl, but some agriculture experts are warning of a crisis in the rice industry that may leave the region without enough of its staple food. Experts are gathering in Japan this week to discuss Asia's food security.

Asia's developing countries are the main players in the global rice industry. The world's top eight producers of rice last year were Asian countries, with China and India producing the most. Thailand and Vietnam are the top exporters in the world.

But since the middle of the 1980s, growth in rice production in Asia has been declining.

Akimi Fujimoto, a professor at Japan's Tokyo University of Agriculture, says rapid industrialization is partly to blame.

"The most important point is increasing competition for limited resources such as land, water, labor and capital between rice sector and non-agricultural sector because of increased industrialization," he said.

Professor Fujimoto also notes that farmers are leaving their fields to take better paying jobs elsewhere.

Experts warn that water scarcity, environmental damage from overuse of chemicals, climate change and inefficient farming methods exacerbate the situation.

China's rice harvest is worrying some experts. Between 1990 and 2000, growth in rice production remained flat, compared with two and a half percent growth annually between 1970 and 1990. Experts say that is largely caused by farmers taking jobs in the cities.

Its slow growth in domestic supply, while its demand increases, has forced China to import rice. Earlier this year, China's large rice purchases on the world market forced up prices.

David Dawe, an economist at the International Rice Research Institute or I.R.R.I., in the Philippines says the situation could have far-reaching implications for Chinese stability.

"This year the [Chinese] government has started to give out some subsidies to farmers to encourage them to grow more rice," he said. "They're quite concerned politically about the growing inequality between people in the rural areas and people in the fast growing areas. So … they can resolve two issues at the same time. One is to help ensure domestic food security, and another is to put a cap in some of the possible political discontent that might come from very poor farm families."

Some experts note that as income rises, demand for rice falls as seen in Japan and Korea over the past three decades. But for some economies, such as the Philippines and South Asia where incomes are low, demand is still rising because of continued population growth. In South Asia alone, studies show that rice demand will increase one and a half percent a year. That means, by 2030, South Asia will need 52 percent more rice than it consumed last year.

Mr. Dawe says the challenge for Asia is to increase productivity by harvesting more rice at the least possible cost.

"I'm quite confident the rice would be produced but the key issue is at what price would it be produced," he said.

Rice prices have been relatively low in recent years but experts warn that as resources become scarce, the price will increase, possibly beyond the reach of the poor.

Experts are gathering in Tsukuba, Japan, this week to address the challenge at the World Rice Research Conference. Scientists are looking for technological innovations to boost production and develop new rice varieties that have higher yields, are more resistant to weather changes and are more nutritious. They say such developments could improve incomes for rice farmers, who are mostly poor.

The I.R.R.I., the world's leading rice research center, says finding answers for Asia's rice industry depends on more research. But, it adds that funding for rice research - traditionally from Western donors - is falling. The institute's own funding fell by 26 percent from 2001 to 2003.

There is some good news regarding rice. Indonesia says that by expanding rice planting areas, it has regained self-sufficiency in production after a decade of imports. And in the Philippines, a record harvest is expected next year. But officials there say it will not be enough to meet domestic demand because of the country's growing population.