However you dice the numbers, growing enough rice to feed Asia’s burgeoning population presents an enormous challenge.

Rice provides 20-70 per cent of Asia’s calories. The region grows 90pc of the world’s 448 million tonnes of rice, and its 3.8 billion people in turns eats 90pc.

Until 2008, a shifting balance existed that allowed most of Asia’s billions to have adequate rice, even the poor.

But when rice prices shot up during the 2008 food crisis to historical highs, from which they still haven’t come down, many of Asia’s poor strained to afford their traditional staple.

Food riots broke out, and the unease of governments in countries long preoccupied with food security deepened as their vulnerability to economic forces outside the region was exposed.

Trends all point to that vulnerability growing.

Across most of Asia, populations are climbing. The region contributes the lion’s share of the 220,000 people now added to the world each day.

Farm land is being urbanised: somewhere between 2020-30, Asia’s populations will become equally divided between rural and urban, compared to 1950 when more than 80 per cent was rural.

Land is losing productive capacity through poor farming practices and pollution, and water resources are being dangerously depleted.

This leaves an apparently impossible sum: feeding more, from a shrinking production base.

Nor is the issue just about more rice; it is about more affordable rice.

According to IRRI calculations, the world, and Asia in particular, needs to produce 8-10 million tonnes more rice per year in order to have a sufficient quantity of rice on the market priced in the US$300 per tonne range—the price at which rice is affordable to all.

The 2008 food crisis threw a spanner in the works of that aspiration.

Subramanian, vice-president of the Asian arm of US-owned market publication The Rice Trader, said the price spike that accompanied the crisis has yet to subside, with rice prices sitting around US$150-$200/t above historical averages.

Indicative prices are currently US$550/t for Thai rice and US$450/t for Vietnamese rice, although cheaper rice in the US$350/t range can still be bought from low-quality producers like Myanmar.

Mr Subramanian said analysts are watching to see how the 2009-10 market shakes out in the wake of the monsoon failure in India and floods in The Philippines.

India may import rice for the first time in 30 years to maintain its stocks against a second crop downgrade in 2010.

However, Mr Subramanian said while the Indian situation may appear concerning, the country this year took off a record wheat crop that could effectively substitute for the rice shortfall.


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