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Floods, drought threaten Asia's food security

Update: August, 17/2012 - 09:00

by Kieu Van

Continuous news about natu-ral calamities in Asia have made the issue of food security even more important across the continent. The need to ensure supplies of food and protect crops from drought and floods has been made all the more urgent after both the Japanese and US weather centres announced last week that the El Nino weather pattern is underway and almost certain to impact parts of Asia during the next two months.

The chances are high that the El Nino phenomenon will continue until the winter, and an intense El Nino can cause widespread drought in Australia, Southeast Asia and India, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

The prediction of more severe weather is coming true as the Philippines and China have been suffering from large storms and heavy flooding that have resulted in huge losses of crops while in India, one of the world's largest food producers and consumers with a population of 1.2 billion, people continue to struggle with a prolonged drought.

In an assessment of threats of natural disasters in 197 countries, British risk consultancy Maplecroft said six Asian countries were among the 10 countries whose economies were most vulnerable to catastrophes.

The list is headed by Bangladesh and the Philippines, which along with Myanmar are considered to be at "extreme" risk. India, Viet Nam and Laos are also in the top 10.

Economists have highlighted high food prices as a problem for poor countries that have to spend a lot on importing food to feed their populations.

Andrei Sizov from SovEcon has warned that if a global food crisis happens, poor nations will be the first to suffer and the hardest hit, as many people in these countries spend from 60 to 80 per cent of their income on food.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation said last Thursday the world was closer to a repeat of the 2007-08 food crisis due to a spike in food costs.

Maize prices have surged by more than 60 per cent over the last two months, Reuters said, and wheat prices are still rising.

It means that Asian nations, the biggest food producers in the world, have to ensure timely measures to deal with a crisis before it hits. A crucial task is to develop emergency food reserve systems.

In Viet Nam, state-run enterprises purchased only 249,000 tonnes of rice during the summer-autumn crops, meeting 50 per cent of the national food reserve fund approved by the Prime Minister, according to vietfood.org.vn, the official website of the Viet Nam Food Association.

While, in Indonesia, the third largest rice consumer in the world with average rice consumption of 139kg/per person a year, rice still had to be imported, despite the country's reputation for prudent management of food supplies.

Indonesia is still confident that it could deal with a food crisis if it happens. In July, Indonesian deputy minister of agriculture Rusman Heriawan said the nation could still import rice at the end of 2012 aiming to maintain the rice reserve fund for the first quarter of 2013, despite rice production output this year meeting domestic demand.

Vietnamese economists have predicted that rice-importing countries in the region such as the Philippines and Bangladesh would suffer greatly from floods and high food prices.

Economists from oryza.com said recent floods in the Philippines can upset the government's plan on rice production in early next year as well as food supplies throughout the whole year as flooding has hit during harvest time.

The Indonesian government has anticipated the worst, factoring in the difficulties of even smaller rice harvest due to El Nino.

Indonesia has targeted rice reserves of 10 million tonnes until the end of this year, meaning the country has to maintain a large food reserve for the next three months.

China, on August 10, the first time since September 2011, announced it would take rice and maize from the national food reserve fund for domestic demand to keep local prices stable. The country's cultivation land had been reduced after a big storm and floods in July.

International economic experts predicted China may have to purchase maize by the end of this year to supplement its reserve fund.

Bangladesh has decided to maintain a ban on white rice exports to ensure supply of the grain and stable prices. The government has been urged by experts and the local media to boost domestic consumption to ensure farmers earn benefits from their crops.

Eighty per cent of Viet Nam's population of 86 million work in the agricultural sector, but a lot of people must still buy rice every day.

Vo Tri Thanh, deputy director of Vietnamese Institute of Economic Research and Management, said Government leaders and policy makers should think about how to boost benefits for farmers in addition to keeping prices stable.

He said a better method must be found than applying a suitable rice export tax.

However, for developing countries such as Viet Nam, getting access to technology to preserve the quality of food in reserve is still a challenge, let alone finding a solution to ensuring efficient cultivation of crops in areas prone to natural disasters. — VNS

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