Asia urged to boost rice reserves

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Asian countries need to sharply increase and better manage rice stocks to improve food security in a region where 65 percent of the world's hungry live, a report said.

With populations across Asia growing, tens of millions of extra dollars need to be invested to boost rice production, said the report prepared by the US-based Asia Society and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

"Not only is rice risky to grow, it is risky to sell and trade," said the report, released in the United States on Monday.

"One way to lower risks is to increase the level of rice reserves, especially in the large Asian countries that have a deep interest in more stable prices."

It noted that while building larger reserves would be expensive, stockpiles could be used to cushion against price shocks.

To this end, governments could create a futures market for rice in the regional hub of Singapore.

"Under normal circumstances, a robust and deep rice futures market should add substantial stability and transparency to formation of rice prices," the report said.

It noted that rice remained the staple food for Asia, where the grain accounts for nearly half of the expenditures of those mired in poverty.

"For those making less than 1.25 dollars a day, access to adequate food from the market is often too costly," it said.

"Asia's poor, most of whom do not have land to be surplus producers of rice, are especially vulnerable."

The report's release came shortly after the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the low priority given to the farm sector over the past three decades had led to volatile prices of commodities.

Citing figures from the UN, the report said governments must invest an additional 40 billion dollars a year in farming, on top of the current level of 80 billion dollars, to eliminate hunger and poverty in Asia by 2050.

Specifically on rice, the IRRI, headquartered in the Philippines, estimated that annual investment of 120 million dollars in Asia between 2010 and 2030 could increase productivity by 8.5 percent.

This could lower the poverty rate in Asia by 15 percent, it said.

Apart from spending more on research and development to increase rice yields, governments in the region must also provide safety nets for the vulnerable, including conditional cash transfers to the poor, the report said.

It also called for the creation of a regional coordination centre for food security efforts to identify systematic approaches to end hunger.

"This report focuses attention on the dire need for action to take place," IRRI director general Robert Zeigler, who helped prepare the document, told AFP.

"There are now more than one billion people (globally) in poverty, including 560 million people living on less than 1.25 dollars per day who live in rice-producing areas, far more than any other crop."

Showing what could be done, Zeigler said the IRRI had introduced a rice variety in India that could survive up to two weeks submerged in flood water.