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Food for Asia's hungry millions

Here's an eye-opening report on the BIGGEST problem facing Asia today — FOOD!


MORE than half of the world's population is dependent on rice for life. It is in this half of the world that hundreds of millions are right now on the brink of starvation. Even in good years these millions are hardly more than a step away from starvation.


A World Problem

The population explosion is eating up every year all the increase in Asia's grain production. What Asians are asking is where will the food come from in bad years?

The importance of rice in the life and economy of most Asian nations cannot be easily comprehended by Western observers. No one crop in the Western world has such an impact on the national economy. Indeed it would take a combination of several grains to equal anywhere near the importance in Asia of rice.

The subcontinent of India and the small but populous nations of Southeast Asia require a continuous supply of rice for their physical and economic wellbeing.

When crops are good, these Asians prosper. When rice output drops, famine sets in. The people languish from lack of proper nutrition. And the governments face serious international as well as internal problems.


The Truth about Rice Production

We are all familiar with the well-known rice paddy. Here rice is grown in a small shallow pond filled with water which is drained at harvest time. There also is an upland variety of rice that can grow without standing water, but both varieties require water and large quantities of it. The monsoon rains of Asia supply this water — usually.

Historically there have been long periods of severe drought in these areas. Without water, rice cannot grow. The Philippines is now suffering from a prolonged drought. India is plagued by both drought and floods. Korean production has been hampered by lack of rain. Cold weather and strong winds are other natural enemies of rice production — and they are often a real danger.

In most countries rice is planted by hand, tended by hand, harvested by hand. A long, tiring, tedious process transplanting each seedling singly, bending over in knee-deep, muddy water under a devastatingly hot sun. "Planting rice is never fun, bent from morn till the set of sun," goes one native song that describes the tedium of planting rice as it has been done for centuries.

Mechanization has been introduced in some countries such as the U.S. and industrialized Japan. But for the vast majority of farmers it is still backbreaking labor assisted only little by the lumbering water buffalo. If the rains don't come, the fields must be irrigated. Water is sometimes available in streams, rivers and wells. But irrigation water is often inaccessible or inadequate.

Irrigation pumps are expensive and heavy import duties are imposed upon the pumps and related equipment by uncooperative governments. If irrigation pumps are not available, hand pumping is resorted to. But this can only supply a limited amount of water for a small family farm and cannot enable a farmer to produce a substantial market crop.

Generally, there is a tax on fertilizer and high taxes on farming property. Plant diseases often ravage whole provinces in a country. Insects and rodents take a heavy toll in almost every area.

After harvesting, rice must be dried. If it is not dried, it will rot. In the unmechanized areas this process is done by laying the rice out in the sun on mats, concrete slabs or even on the edge of highways. If it rains the rice will easily spoil. This method of drying also results in great loss to rodent and insect damage. It is estimated from one fourth to one half of the grain crop is needlessly lost as a consequence.


Unsolved Economic Problems

The U.S., surprisingly, is the world's largest exporter of rice. This is due to the fact that Americans have developed rice production into a highly mechanized and efficient operation. There is, also, no great demand for rice by the American people. This might sound good — people of the so-called have-not nations can eat American rice. But this huge supply of low-cost rice fosters another problem. The U.S. can sell rice at a lower price, placing the inefficient rice-producing countries in an unfavorable competitive position. The major problem is to find some way of helping the inefficient rice producer and preventing him from being economically destroyed by efficient producers.

Rice production in developing nations is far from efficient. Asia's agricultural nations need rice for export. It is primarily through the exportation of rice that they acquire international monetary credit. If they have enough rice to export, they can expect to have a favorable balance of payments. They will have income to be spent on products which they need but do not themselves produce. Rice, therefore, is the important commodity in the economy of the great rice-producing nations.

Of course if all rice nations produce a surplus rice crop, there will be less international market for rice. If there is little demand for rice, the nations cannot sell their surpluses abroad and the price of rice drops in the producing country itself.

When this happens, the farmers are paid less for all of their labor. A vicious circle sets in. Quite often they will transfer their land from rice production to something more lucrative. The next harvest season therefore finds a smaller supply of rice available and the people are in need again.

If there is not enough rice grown in a rice-producing country that country must go to some surplus-producing country for its badly needed rice. Valuable international monetary credit is spent for food the people should have grown for themselves.

Generally, the currency of a developing nation is considered a "soft currency" and other nations do not want to honor it. Most countries want payment in U.S. dollars or other stable money. If the buying nation does not have dollars, or credit with the selling nation, it cannot buy rice even if the price is very low. Some nations actually borrow rice from other nations, promising to pay rice back after several years. How these developing nations can be helped is a big problem facing world leaders.


Political Problems

Now look at international politics. Should a non-communist nation purchase rice from a communist nation? Many do. Communist China, for example, exports rice to British Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, South African Republic, Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Other grains are often traded back and forth. Australian or Canadian wheat eventually go to Communist China and Russia.

It is not just a problem of feeding the starving millions of Asia. Very important economic manipulations of far-reaching influence must be made by participating nations. Asia's governments are using rice as a means of improving their economic stability and growth — sometimes at the expense of the individual citizens of the nation. Even India and Pakistan exported some of their grains in 1968 in spite of the fact that they have a history of continuing famine.

They felt compelled to do this to increase their international balance of payments. All of these nations are striving to improve their production of rice and to improve the prices of that rice on the world markets so that their governments can continue to function.

One nation even went so far as to grow for export high-income-producing tobacco and poppy seeds (for opium) on its valuable farmland. Its leaders then asked for and received food from the U.S.!