Securing food a staple concern

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

The number of philanthropists who are interested in supporting food security in Asia has increased significantly in the past few months, according to Tony Ferris, UBS executive director and head of philanthropy services for Asia-Pacific.

Along with education, health care, and arts and culture, food security has become one of Asia's philanthropists' top interests. Traditionally many philanthropists in Asia have supported education, but now there is more interest in securing food supply because of rises in global food prices.

'There is a greater awareness about food security now than a month ago,' said Mr Ferris, who was leading a group of philanthropists this month to a meeting in Manila to find out how they could help secure food supply in Asia.

'At the meeting in the Philippines organised by the International Rice Research Institute, we advised a group of philanthropists on how to work with the government and other philanthropists or [set up] collaboration between countries to help secure food production in the next five to 10 years,' said Mr Ferris. 'This is an issue that philanthropists believe needs to be back on the table.'

Poor harvests, increasing demand and a lack of investments have prompted Asia's philanthropists, who are relatively new to supporting agriculture, to engage in securing rice production. The International Rice Research Institute has been supported by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in the United States, and has been established for 40 years.

But many philanthropists who attended the meeting and were interested in supporting the campaign had little knowledge about the subject. A Manila-based spokesman for the organisation said: 'Their knowledge of rice is limited. We provided some basic information: the nutrition level of rice and the production of it.'

A campaign to promote funding in Asia for rice research by the International Rice Research Institute was launched six months ago.

'So far, the response has been very positive. We have talked to people in China, Thailand, Indonesia and India. Once we have presented our case to wealthy people in Asia we are confident that we will have the right support,' the spokesman said.

He said the project was still in its initial stage.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the price of rice has gone up by as much as 70 per cent during the past year, with increases accelerating in recent weeks. According to the International Rice Research Institute, world rice production last year was about 645million tonnes.

At least 114 countries grow rice and more than 50 have an annual production of 100,000 tonnes or more. And Asian farmers produce about 90 per cent of the total, with two countries, China and India, growing more than half the total crop.

The top 10 rice producing countries are China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Japan, the Philippines and Brazil. Production of the stable crop has suffered in rice producing countries as a result of extreme weather. But major producers such as India, China and Vietnam have restricted the amount they export in order to ease inflation and to protect their own stocks.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao said this month that the country had an 'abundant' supply of rice to feed its population of more than 1.3billion and that it had a reserve of about 40million to 50million tonnes of rice. India's government announced a total ban on exports of non-basmati rice to curb rising food prices.

The reduction in exports from the larger producers has hit developing countries such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the Philippines which had relied on imports. The Philippine government said that it would be able to cease imports by 2010 to cover production shortfalls. The Philippines faces mounting pressure to achieve self sufficiency by increasing spending on irrigation and farm support to boost production.