Release the Rice (II)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

KUDOS TO the government of Japan, which we recently urged to sell or donate a substantial portion of its massive stockpile of U.S.-grown rice. Early last week it did so, announcing that it would sell 200,000 metric tons of the grain to the Philippines, one of the countries hit hardest by the recent spike in global rice prices. A few days later, Tokyo added a donation of 20,000 metric tons to five African nations. And kudos also to the Bush administration for encouraging Japan to take these steps. The measures will give both Japan and the United States moral standing at next week's meeting of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to urge countries such as Vietnam and India, which are still limiting exports of rice, to be more flexible.

Tokyo's policy change has helped ease what previously seemed to be an unstoppable price rise on the global rice market. But more needs to be done. Japan is scheduled to import an additional 680,000 metric tons of rice this year. Rather than simply add that to its stockpiles, as it has done in the past, Japan should dedicate some or all of the rice directly to the World Food Program and allow the WFP to pick it up directly in the countries of origin to save on transportation costs, as the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank, has proposed.

Looking further ahead, Japan needs to consider consuming more U.S. and other foreign-grown rice itself, thus limiting what has become a major distortion in the global rice trade. That was the original purpose of the trade agreement under which imports into Japan's highly protected rice market were first authorized a decade and a half ago. Of course, a set-aside for foreign producers within a broadly controlled market is itself an outmoded and wasteful policy, one that could be politically sustained only during a period of cheap food. Now that higher commodity prices are here, probably to stay, it's time to push for free trade in rice throughout Asia, Japan included.


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