Some 3.5 billion people around the world depend on rice for their main meals. But a combination of climate change, environmental destruction and the free market is putting production—and lives—in danger.
Despite years of rising rice harvests, in Senegal it’s clear there is still not enough for all. Like most other African nations, Senegal imports much of its rice from India. The grain is the core ingredient of millions of meals eaten there each day. But decisions being made by men in high office in the capital, Delhi, are about to tear through the limited food security that poor countries have.
They will send rice prices sky high. Repeated droughts, and the increasingly erratic nature of monsoon weather patterns, has slashed rice cultivation across Asia. The world’s biggest suppliers—India, Thailand and Vietnam—are all badly affected.
In a bid to head off shortages and food price inflation at home, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi this summer banned the export of all non‑basmati rice. The country is the world’s largest rice supplier. Monsoon rains due in June came late this year but then hit the north east far harder than they should. This caused flooding, ruined crops and infrastructure collapse.
But in the east and south, there has been far less rain than there should be, slashing crop yields to a fraction of normal. Similarly erratic weather is affecting east Asia. Forecasters warn that the earth could be entering a multi-year period of exceptional warmth driven by greenhouse gas emissions—and the return of the El Nino weather pattern.
Many farmers that used to grow two crops a year are now sowing just one. The bosses’ World Economic Forum estimates that climate change may reduce rice yields by 15 percent by 2050. But farmers are up against more than the weather. Years of intensive cultivation using fertilisers has depleted groundwater and salted the earth, driving yields down still further.
Speculators and big business hoarders have moved to hoover up what supply there is, forcing prices up to their highest levels in almost 15 years. Richer rice-dependent nations, such as Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia are trying to stock up.
And short sellers are trying to make money by speculating on the rising market. Price rises are already forcing the poorest nations in Asia and north and west Africa to cut back on rice and switch to cheaper alternatives. But prices of other staples are now also rising.
The situation is being worsened by the breakdown of the Black Sea trade deal between Russia and Ukraine, which will hit wheat and corn supplies. The effect of letting the free market rip is being felt beyond rice, says Raghu Murtugudde, of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
“In Indonesia, fisheries are already probably hurt because the impact of El Ninos is pretty strong,” he says. “Then meat gets hit, which in turn increases the demand for corn that is used as cattle feed, which impacts ethanol production and then fuel prices go up, impacting transport which leads to vegetables’ prices going up.”
In other words, the rising price of staple foodstuffs is driving a wave of inflation hitting the poor across the Global South and beyond. In Pakistan, where catastrophic floods in 2022 washed away much of the country’s crops, the annual food inflation rate reached 49 percent in May.
Though the ruling class is itself completely insulated from price rises, many sections worry that the rising cost of living could lead to rebellion on the streets. Their “solutions” to the rice crisis are limited to technical fixes, rather than alternatives to the market. The World Economic Forum is among many organisations that put hope in new breeds of gene-edited rice that can withstand some climate pressures.
But all such engineered seeds will be owned by big corporations that have every interest in keeping prices high. The idea that they will act on behalf of the world’s poorest is pure fantasy. The climate and agricultural crisis now ravaging the world requires a far more fundamental response. That has to start with the premise that food is a basic human right, not a profiteer’s commodity.
A surge in yields and production of staple crops, such as rice and wheat, helped prevent recurrent famines that typified British colonial rule. But the intensification of farming from that period onwards has brought many new forms of misery.
Fertilisers poisoned the earth and damaged the ecosystem. And the reliance of single cash crops made farmers especially vulnerable to blight and disease—and market fluctuations. But the Green Revolution’s greatest failure is unsustainable water use. India is now among the most water‑stressed countries in the world.
A government report in 2019 estimated that 600 million Indians faced “high to extreme water stress”. It warned that 21 big cities—including the capital New Delhi—would run out of groundwater in a matter of years. It takes between 3,000 and 5,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of rice.
As production expanded, and monsoon rains have become unreliable, farmers have been forced to extract ever more groundwater for their crops. This in turn makes for saltier water. The Green Revolution’s promotion of water-intensive produce could only ever have one outcome—a lack of water for human beings. Climate change is also driving soil salinisation.
Ocean temperatures are rising, and warmer water takes up more space. Ice sheets and glaciers are melting and flowing into oceans raising the volume of water. Scientists project that global sea levels will rise by up to 50cm by 2100. This process pushes salty water onshore along coastlines from Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the east.
In 2005 Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W Bush agreed a deal that was touted as a route to abolishing hunger. It was supposed to be a collaborative effort. Instead it allowed US-based biotechnology firms to get access to India’s vast network of agricultural research institutes.
It also allowed US multinationals— including Monsanto, which has about a quarter of the global seed market—to influence the legal regime in India. In 2007 India’s genetic engineering approval committee announced that genetically modified foods would no longer require approval.
New laws would also have punished, with steep fines and jail terms, any attempt to “misinform” the public about genetically modified products without “scientific evidence”. Some 76 years after Indian independence, the moves allowed Western firms to re‑colonise the country’s food chain.
Another threat to rice crops is the El Nino weather phenomenon. In June this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that an El Nino weather event had arrived—a month or two earlier than usual.
El Ninos are declared when the ocean’s temperatures rise to 0.5 degrees Celsius above the long term average. The opposite of an El Nino is a La Nina, which is when the ocean’s surface is cooler on average. These weather patterns cause the overall temperature of the planet to go up or down. An El Nino causes warmer and wetter weather.
El Ninos and La Niñas are nothing new—they have been observed since the 1900s. But this latest weather event is predicted to push global temperatures above 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre‑industrial levels. Such a rise could have a devastating effect on the planet.
The World Meteorological Organisation says, “El Nino conditions have developed in the tropical Pacific for the first time in seven years, setting the stage for a likely surge in global temperatures and disruptive weather and climate patterns”.
Not everyone is sure we are experiencing an El Nino. Some scientists and international bodies are very cautious about declaring one. They say that if such an event has begun, it is only in its infancy.
The mainstream press tends to present El Niños as a singular factor behind environmental disasters, including flooding, extreme heat, and Malaria outbreaks. While El Nino is driving some of these events, or is a factor in them, it’s not the only culprit.
Grahame Madge of the Met Office, says, “El Nino is not solely responsible for the high temperatures, but when you add it onto the anthropogenic warming… then it’s likely to take global temperatures to a new record year. “[The El Nino has] only just emerged, and so what we’re seeing is not really due to that El Nino. What we’re seeing is the overall warmth pretty much everywhere—particularly in the oceans.
“The reason why we think that’s going to continue is because we continue to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Until we stop doing that, temperatures will keep on rising.” Scientists from Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies have said the most significant impact of El Nino will be next year. That could help make 2024 the hottest year on record.
They have been trying to establish if there is a clear link between global heating and particularly extreme El Ninos. Some of the strongest El Nino events have occurred in the last 50 years—the same period as fossil fuel emissions have soared. Three of the strongest El Ninos raged in the years 1982 to 1983, 1997 to 1998 and 2015 to 2016.
But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this weather event and climate change are separate issues. Hotter temperatures caused by climate change will only be compounded by El Ninos. El Ninos are natural weather events out of human control. But they will be made more dangerous and deadly because our system relies on burning fossil fuels.
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