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Asia’s food-oil-inflation roller-coaster

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These people are already hit by the food price rise

In South-East Asia the price of Thai fragrant rice has surged by 26 per cent since 01 Nov 2009, thanks to storms in the Philippines and drought in southern China. At these levels, physical hoarding is seen taking place among Thai rice exporters, which means they probably have expectations that rice prices will go up even higher. And it is not just rice. Soya beans and edible oils like palm oil are also seeing a rise in prices, which in turn may make livestock more expensive since these crops go into animal feed.

Food prices are also rising in China – prices of vegetables shot up by as much as 10 per cent since 01 January 2010 as extreme cold weather damaged crops and transportation problems hampered delivery. Oil prices have been rallying in line with the global recovery, hitting levels above US$83 a barrel earlier this week, near a 15-month high. Food prices are also rebounding from their 2009 lows, potentially increasing price pressures in Asian countries that are already seeing asset bubbles build up.

Vegetable vendor

There’s already evidence from Kerala that the combination of food price rise specifically and inflation generally is hurting:

“The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (Nafed) will join hands with the State government to implement an ‘Easy Market’ scheme to provide solace to consumers in the event of spiralling prices of essential commodities. The Union government has approved a subsidy of around Rs.600 crore [Rs 6 billion = US$ 133.34 million, Jan 2010] to provide ‘Easy Market’ kits containing 20 items of daily use to consumers at a discount ranging between 30 and 40 per cent. In Kerala, Nafed will use the Triveni and Neethi chain of stores to implement the scheme.
The scheme had been approved by a Cabinet sub-committee and 60 million kits would be distributed in the first phase. These kits contain rice, wheat, whole wheat flour, pulses, sugar, edible oil, etc, he said. Nafed would procure wheat and rice from the Food Corporation of India and distribute them at reasonable rates. Wheat flour would also be distributed similarly.”
Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

But elsewhere in India’s government mindspace, the ‘spend more’ school of thought is dreaming up still more schemes that have to do with food:

“Speaking at the National Retail Summit 2010 “Modern Retail: Towards Sustainable Growth and Profitability” Subodh Kant Sahai, Minister for Food Processing Industry, said that the Union Government is coming out with a series of initiatives to “increase the share of modern retail”. Sahai stated that the centre has planned to upgrade 70 cities in India by 2012 having all the modern facilities that of metros like Mumbai and Delhi. “With the amendment of the Agriculture Produce Market Act or the APMC act, farmers would become the largest beneficiaries. With 70 percent of our population also dependent on agriculture this would also get in 3rd party investors interested in Retail to patronize the farmers,” he said. According to Mr Sahai growth of the food processing industry is directly linked to the growth in retail industry.” Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

It’s typical that India’s administrators, planners, policymakers and legislators don’t bother to look around at the conditions of our fellow Southasians:

“Burma had been the world’s largest exporter of rice as recently as the 1930s, but rice exports fell by two thirds in the 1940s, with the country never again reclaiming its dominant status in the internatinal rice trade. Thailand and Vietnam now lead the world in rice exports. For fiscal year 1938/39, rice accounted for nearly 47 percent of Burma’s export receipts. However, by 2007/08 the corresponding figure had sunk to less than two percent. Dr. U Myint [an economist] said the reintegration of the rice industry into the world market would provide incentives to increase both the quantity and quality of rice and thereby lead to higher incomes and employment opportunities for the rural population, who constitute 65 percent of the population of 58 million. An estimated 31 million acres of land is cultivated in Burma, of which more than 16 million acres are devoted to rice.” Read more here.

Commodity chains took powerful shape in the steam age to give a large number of local products geographically expansive identities. Opium, jute, and indigo are prime examples of nineteenth century Bengal farm products generated by world markets where the ups and downs of prices impinged sharply on local experience in some locales but not others.

Tippoo's Dominions, 1794

“By 1900, commodity production defined South Asia as a region of the world economy, defined regions in South Asia, and defined localities in regions. Ceylon, Malaysia, Assam, Fiji and Mauritius were for plantations. Ceylon first produced coffee; then tea, rubber, cocoanut, and cinchona. Assam was tea country. Ceylon and Assam replaced China as top suppliers of English tea. Fiji and Mauritius meant sugar plantations. Labour supplies posed the major constraint for plantation capitalists who found the solution in eventually permanent indentured labour migration from labour export specialty areas in Bihar, Bengal, and southern Tamil districts.”

“Sites of commodity production demanded more commodities. Circuits of moving commodities linked commodity producers and consumers to one another in spaces that surpass the spatial imagination of national history. Modern Indian history has circulated in the space/time of capitalism, in the manner of globalization today, for over a century. Far-flung plantations in Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies, as well as cities and farms in Burma and Africa developed circuits of commodity production and capital accumulation anchored in India. Tamil Chettiyars became local financiers on the rice frontier in Burma’s Irrawaddy River delta, which generated huge exports of rice for world consumers, including Indian cities that needed Burma rice so much that when Japan’s conquest of Burma cut rice exports, it precipitated the 1943-4 Bengal famine. In 1930, Indians composed almost half Rangoon’s population. In East and South Africa, Gujarati merchants and workers arriving from Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras provided labour and capital for railways and import-export dependent urbanism. The Indian diaspora was well underway a century ago: between 1896 and 1928, seventy-five percent of emigrants from Indian ports went to Ceylon and Malaya; ten percent, to Africa; nine percent, to the Caribbean; and the remaining six percent, to Fiji and Mauritius.”

From ‘Agricultural Production, South Asian History, and Development Studies’, edited by David Ludden, Oxford University Press, September 2004

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