Rice prices have surged to a 15-year high, sounding an alarm on the vulnerability of food supplies to climate change, particularly in the wake of India’s restrictions on rice exports, experts warn. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported a substantial 9.8 percent increase in rice prices in August, a notable contrast to declines in other staple foods.
The spike in rice prices follows India’s decision in July to ban the overseas sale of non-basmati rice. India is the world’s top exporter of rice, responsible for 40 percent of global rice exports. The government attributed the move to soaring domestic rice prices, which have been affected by geopolitical factors, the El Nino weather pattern, and “extreme climatic conditions.”
This year is expected to mark the hottest in human history, with the El Nino weather pattern exacerbating climatic challenges. Despite severe flooding in parts of northern India, August experienced record-breaking heat and dryness. The monsoon season, which typically brings up to 80 percent of India’s annual rainfall, has been significantly below normal levels.
India’s decision to restrict rice exports is not new; it follows a similar ban on a different rice variety last September, which is a staple in parts of Africa.
This crisis creates an opportunity for India’s competitors, particularly Thailand and Vietnam, the second and third-largest rice exporters globally. Both countries have increased their rice exports this year. Vietnam, in particular, reported a “bumper crop” and plans to expand its planting. However, experts caution that the dry conditions associated with El Nino may pose challenges in the near future.
Elyssa Kaur Ludher, from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Climate Change in Southeast Asia program, expressed concerns about the sustainability of increased rice exports. She questioned whether these efforts could continue once El Nino’s effects intensify towards the end of this year when water becomes scarcer. Ludher warned that the end of this year and the beginning of the next could prove extremely challenging.
El Nino is a naturally occurring weather phenomenon, typically lasting nine to twelve months, and is expected to strengthen later this year. Even before India’s recent export restrictions, the effects of El Nino had already been contributing to rising rice export prices, according to BMI, a global research firm.
The surge in rice prices and its connection to climate change emphasizes the urgency of addressing climate-related disruptions to food supplies and the need for proactive measures to ensure global food security in an era of increasing environmental instability.