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The soaring price of rice is affecting many parts of the world where it's the staple diet

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The price of rice is soaring. It's up by 20% since June. This is bad news for the half of the globe that relies on rice as a staple. But it's a serious hardship in African and Asian countries where hunger is a fact of life. The spike in price is caused by several forces, including droughts and floods, But decisions made by India, which has a key role in the international rice market, have made the shortage worse. Abdullah Al Mamun is senior research analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute, and he joins us now. Mr. Al Mamun, thanks so much for being with us.

ABDULLAH AL MAMUN: Thank you.

SIMON: We want to examine Indian export policies, but can you tell us first what prompted this disruption in rice crops over the past year?

AL MAMUN: So as you see, that after Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rice market - global rice market was relatively calm. But since September 2022, we see there is a price rise in rice, particularly in the Indian and Thai and Vietnam rice prices. So there are a couple of concerns that is triggering these impacts. Obviously, the El Nino, the weather event that is on the horizon right now in the Northern Hemisphere will likely impact the rice production, and this is one factor. The second is that as the fertilizer market is unstable at the moment right now due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, so there is - there was a concern of fertilizer availability during the planting season.

SIMON: I gather India is responsible for 40% of world rice exports. How did they react to these challenges, and what's happened?

AL MAMUN: So they - recently they enacted the export ban with immediate effect on non-basmati rice. So according to different figures, we see that around 10 million tons of rice are currently blocked by India for exporting to the global market.

SIMON: Are Indians just trying to protect their own citizens from a shortage?

AL MAMUN: Right. At the moment, the inflation is around 12%. So India feared about this inflation and has an election next year. So the government is fearing that if the India exports rise, so this will inflate their prices. So that's why they put a ban on export of rice.

SIMON: You say that India has imposed this export ban because they're worried about running out of rice or the price of rice rising before they have their next round of elections.

AL MAMUN: Right. And also, they have a concern about the current monsoon season. In some parts of India, they have heavy rain. So the farmers had to replant their rice.

SIMON: How will that ban affect countries, say, in Sub-Saharan Africa or an Asian country like Bangladesh, where hunger is such as concern?

AL MAMUN: This ban will hugely impact the South Asian countries, who are the largest trading partner of India, particularly for rice. As you know, the Sub-Saharan Africa, they are - like, 80 to almost 100% of their import is from India.

SIMON: Do you have any concerns that countries will begin to hoard supplies of rice?

AL MAMUN: At the moment, I don't see that countries will hoard. But if we see that this rice export ban has a knock-on effect in other large exporter like Thailand or Vietnam, that is a big concern. And we saw that in 2008, food price crisis. One country, one large exporter initiated export ban. The other countries followed through. So that's the domino effect you can expect.

SIMON: Can anything be done, let's say, by the World Trade Organization?

AL MAMUN: We are urging strongly that the World Trade Organization should have a conversation or should have a negotiation with the member countries so that the member countries cooperate with each other. But we have not seen much action on this point from the World Trade Organization.

SIMON: Are there people whose lives are at stake because of this shortage of rice?

AL MAMUN: So in Asia, they are the highest consumer of rice. Some countries, their calorie intake from rice ranges from 40 to 67% in Asia. So this will definitely impact on millions of lives.

SIMON: Abdullah Al Mamun, senior research analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute, thanks so much for being with us.

AL MAMUN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.