With the worst of El Niño now over, there is a general sense of relief that one of the strongest weather events on record didn’t lead to food shortages and spikes in food prices, particularly for rice.
During the 2007-2008 food crisis when there was also an El Niño, albeit a milder one, rice prices on the world market more than doubled. This time, prices went up by a more manageable 10-15 per cent despite rice stocks dipping at their lowest in three years.
Everybody has apparently learned from the last food crisis, says Samarendu Mohanty, social sciences division head of the International Rice Research Institute, on the sidelines of the 15th Review, Planning and Steering Committee Meeting of the Consortium for Unfavourable Rice Environments held in Manila (24 May).
Massive information and warnings about a strong El Niño since early last year prepared governments for its onset. A number of countries increased their seed buffer stocking to ensure production normalises immediately once favourable weather returns.
But Mohanty says that the most important lesson from the 2007-2008 food crisis is not to panic. At that time, major rice-exporting countries such as India and Vietnam restricted rice exports, causing panic buying among rice-importing countries like the Philippines. Some countries purchased more than necessary, which drove up prices.
Advances in rice research and technology in the past decade have managed to save millions of farms worldwide, which otherwise would have been rendered unproductive and useless. More countries have now resorted to adopting salt-tolerant, drought- and heat-resistant rice varieties in unfavourable environments.
Mohanty, however, warns of complacency as politics and successive disasters could easily sway policies and affect supplies in the market. Moreover, he says research should continue to provide better varieties and more profitable returns to encourage farmers to continue planting rice.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.
Weathering El Niño with better preparations