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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Rice Isn't Free, After All!

A couple of weeks ago, Debbie Hodgepodge introduced you to "Free Rice", a fun word game I heard about from a friend and passed on to Debbie. As you might recall, it's a multiple-choice game about vocabulary, and for every word you get right, the website owner donates grains of rice to the UN World Food Program.

We write here today to urge you to go and play again – and again and again. The world price of rice is not free at all and it is getting more expensive all the time. Today's Wall Street Journal alerts us to the fact that this week, in the Chicago commodity markets, a key futures price hit a 20-year high and is up 30% just since the beginning of 2007. So the good people who benefit from really need everything you can help them get. [Indeed, while copying the URL from Hodgepodge just now, we clicked on it unintentionally and donated 400 grains right on the spot. It's so easy! But do finish reading this article first, OK?]

What is going on with the rice market? The same thing that is happening to other commodities, including energy. World demand is rising as the population grows and living standards improve. Some grain prices are also rising as the burgeoning markets for biofuels add new kinds of demand for them. Global production can usually keep up, but if there's a drought or if grain distribution has become more costly because higher priced energy raises shipping fees, then product prices will reflect those forces.

Interestingly, the biggest emerging markets, China and India, are not seeing squeezes on their overall rice supplies. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data published last Tuesday show that China's domestic production has expanded over the last five years while its consumption has actually decreased slightly; domestic supply and demand are now just about in balance. India produces more rice than its people consume, and it is a major exporter. At the same time, individual locales may experience shortages, if there is drought or storm that impacts a regional crop, and India is so large, this situation does occur. Thailand is the largest rice exporting nation and Vietnam has been second, although its government has recently imposed an export ban. Prices for Thai rice rose $23/ton or 6.8% from early November to early December, according to the USDA.

Bangladesh is one of the largest consuming countries and its consumption has increased markedly in recent years, but it too has been producing nearly all of its needs. This year, though, will be an exception as the recent cyclone caused the USDA to cut its estimate of the Bangladeshi crop, so its import demand will be larger. Do you catch this? Some countries are restricting exports even as import demand goes up elsewhere. Ergo, prices rise.

Rice is a wonderful food. The appearance of the Free Rice game yielded a teaching opportunity in my office, where some of the young people seemed unaware of all of rice's benefits; we learned that it is full of the most helpful nutrients. It is just what poor people need to maintain their health and strength.

So we can't overemphasize the importance of keeping the rice going into places where it's needed most. If you want to do this in more than 20-grain increments, contact the World Food Program directly: And for us, it almost goes without saying – but we won't pass up the opportunity! – that several Episcopal Relief & Development programs are involved in "food security", in many cases providing seeds and tools to help folks produce their own. Go to Gifts for Life right here on the Farm; choose "Basics of Life" or "Animals and Agriculture".

Now you can go play!


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