Image: Rice seller at Phnom Penh market
Chor Sokunthea  /  Reuters
A rice seller prepares rice for sale in Phnom Penh, where the prime minister announced a ban on rice exports for two months to stabilize the cost of the country's staple food.
updated 3/27/2008 4:47:37 PM ET 2008-03-27T20:47:37

Philippine activists warn about possible riots. Aid agencies across Asia worry how they will feed the hungry. Governments dig deeper every day to fund subsidies.

A sharp rise in the price of rice is hitting consumer pocketbooks and raising fears of public turmoil in the many parts of Asia where rice is a staple.

Part of a surge in global food costs, rice prices on world markets have jumped 50 percent in the past two months and at least doubled since 2004. Experts blame rising fuel and fertilizer expenses as well as crops curtailed by disease, pests and climate change. There are concerns prices could rise a further 40 percent in coming months.

The higher prices have already sparked protests in the Philippines, where a government official has asked the public to save leftover rice. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a ban on rice exports Wednesday to curb rising prices at home. Vietnamese exporters and farmers are stockpiling rice in expectation of further price increases.

Prestoline Suyat of the May One Labor Movement, a left-wing workers group, warned that "hunger and poverty may eventually lead to riots."

The neediest are hit hardest.

Rodolfo de Lima, a 42-year-old parking lot attendant in Manila, said "my family will go hungry" if prices continue to rise.

"If your family misses a meal, you really don't know what you can do, but I won't do anything bad," said de Lima, whose right foot was amputated after he was shot during a 1985 gang war.

Others might not be so restrained, said Domingo Casarte, 41, a street vendor.

"There are people who are hotheaded," he said. "When people get trapped, I can't say what they will do."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts global rice stocks for 2007-08 at 72 million tons, the lowest since 1983-84 and about half of the peak in 2000-01.

The higher prices are stretching the budgets of aid agencies providing rice to North Korea and other countries, particularly with donations already falling.

Jack Dunford, head of a consortium in Thailand helping more than 140,000 refugees from military-ruled Myanmar, said soaring rice prices and a slumping U.S. dollar are forcing cuts in already meager food aid.

"This rice price is just killing us," he said. "This is a very vulnerable group of people under threat."

China is among several countries in the region that subsidize rice prices, an increasingly expensive proposition.

Rice prices have almost doubled in Bangladesh in just a year, sparking resentment but no unrest yet. Repeated floods and a severe cyclone last year have cut production, forcing the government to increase imports.

In Vietnam, a major rice exporter, the crop has been hit by a virus called tungro and infestations of the brown planthopper insect.

Farmers there say they are not benefiting from the higher prices.

"The rice price has gone up 50 percent over the past three months, but I'm not making any more money because I have to pay double for fertilizer, insecticides and labor costs," said Nguyen Thi Thu, 46, a farmer in Ha Tay province, just outside Hanoi.

Another farmer, Cao Thi Thuy, 37, in Nam Dinh province, 75 miles south of Hanoi, said exporters have actually been paying less for rice over the last week.

"If the world prices are going up still, then Vietnamese rice-exporting companies are benefiting, not us," she said. "They tell us that now weather is better, and rice can grow more easily, so we should not expect higher prices."

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, worried about anything that could spark a "people power" revolt against her, is assuring the public that rice won't run out or skyrocket in price during the traditionally lean months of July to September.

This week, she arranged the purchase of up to 1.5 million tons from Vietnam. She also has ordered a crackdown on price manipulation, hoarding and profiteering on subsidized rice, and will hold a food summit April 4.

Things are so tight that Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap has asked people not to throw away leftover rice and urged fast-food restaurants, which normally give customers a cup of rice with meals, to offer a half-cup option to cut waste.

The Philippines is facing "a perfect storm," said Sen. Mar Roxas, president of the Liberal Party. Problems coping with rising rice prices are compounded by higher oil prices and a U.S. economic downturn, which could reduce the money sent home to families by Filipinos working in the United States. Such remittances underpin the economy.

Philippine farmers say the country, which has become the world's largest importer of rice after being an exporter in the early 1970s, has shot itself in the foot by developing some former rice paddies for housing and golf courses and planting more lucrative crops on others.

One Asian country, Japan, is encouraging cuts in rice production. Rice prices there have been falling in recent months as people eat less rice and more bread.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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