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Asia Battles Hike in Rice Prices


Grocery stores in Hong Kong have replenished rice supplies after panic buying nearly cleared the shelves. As Naomi Martig reports from Hong Kong, concern is growing among Asian consumers that the region's staple food will no longer be affordable for low-income families.

The rush for rice in Hong Kong began after wholesale prices spiked in Thailand.

At the end of February, Thailand's benchmark rice was trading at more than $500 a ton, an increase of more than $100 from a month earlier. And in recent days, the price has risen further - more than 30 percent.

Hong Kong imports 90 percent of its rice from Thailand, and relies on imports for most of its food. Consumers, expecting sharp price rises, in the past several days have loaded up on rice, clearing the shelves of some stores.

Jasmine Hui is spokeswoman for Park-n-Shop, one of Hong Kong's largest food retailers. She says the chain has increased delivery volume for rice to meet consumer demand. Hui says shoppers in Hong Kong should not be concerned just yet that they will have to pay more for rice.

"Although we are really facing much pressure as a result of the increase in cost price for rice recently, and we do try our best to stabilize the retail price and up till now we have not adjusted the retail price for all our rice products," she said.

Smaller crops and other factors such as higher fuel costs have contributed to rising prices for rice. Analysts are concerned about what that means for social stability. Some of the region's poorer nations, with inefficient markets and distribution systems, could face shortages, and millions of households could struggle to pay for basic food.

This week's rush on rice shows that even wealthy cities such as Hong Kong, where markets are efficient and most people can afford alternative foods, are vulnerable to fears about shortages and inflation.

Robert Broadfoot is director of the Political and Economic Rick Consultancy in Hong Kong. He says the actual increase in food prices is only a part of the problem when looking at how social unrest and food stability are connected. He says it is just as important to look at how governments control distribution.

"In a number of places they've imposed subsidies so that there are shortages in some countries that have run out, where the food is too cheap," he said. "In other countries like the Philippines, government's in charge of doing most of the imports of the rice, so the government is blamed since it's really part of the industry when things go wrong."

Broadfoot says in poorer countries soaring prices and rice shortages could hit the urban poor hard.

"And urban poor are a group of people that in a lot of countries will demonstrate," he said. "And when they demonstrate, what does that do to the social and political situation of that country?"

To avoid public discontent, many Asian governments have taken steps to make sure their citizens have enough rice. Some, such as the Philippines, are rushing to sign contracts for rice imports, and others, including Vietnam and India, have moved to restrict exports.