On rice, water, and wine

The NY Times has had some very good articles on the rice shortages. “A Drought in Australia, a Global Shortage of Rice” has some first hand information about conditions in Australia that are worsening the shortages in Southeast Asia.
Asia has its own problems, including floods and food-unfriendly government policies, as I described in “Rising rice prices not caused by biofuels“. However, Asians have been increasingly dependent on Australian rice, instead planting cash crops for export in their own fields. Droughts and economics in Australia have resulted in decreased rice harvests just when the food was needed most. Worse, limited water rights mean that farmers in Australia have to choose what crop to plant. The price of wine grapes is higher than that of rice, so the farmers did what they had to do.
Sadly, as I’d gleaned from other reports, the shortages doesn’t seem to be anyone’s “fault”, with no one thing to blame. Instead, it’s a mash of mostly unrelated events and conditions that have come together in an unforeseen way to create a terrible result.

Lindsay Renwick, the mayor of this dusty southern Australian town, remembers the constant whir of the rice mill. “It was our little heartbeat out there, tickety-tick-tickety,” he said, imitating the giant fans that dried the rice, “and now it has stopped.”

The Deniliquin mill, the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere, once processed enough grain to meet the needs of 20 million people around the world. But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia’s rice crop by 98 percent and leading to the mothballing of the mill last December.

Ten thousand miles separate the mill’s hushed rows of oversized silos and sheds — beige, gray and now empty — from the riotous streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but a widening global crisis unites them.

The collapse of Australia’s rice production is one of several factors contributing to a doubling of rice prices in the last three months — increases that have led the world’s largest exporters to restrict exports severely, spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

The article also makes the very real connection between the rice shortages and global warming (although I would have liked some links):

The drought’s effect on rice has produced the greatest impact on the rest of the world, so far. It is one factor contributing to skyrocketing prices, and many scientists believe it is among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production.

It is difficult to definitely link short-term changes in weather to long-term climate change, but the unusually severe drought is consistent with what climatologists predict will be a problem of increasing frequency.