Southeast Asia remains world rice bowl as pockets of region suffer crop disasters


Rice crops in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have taken a hit from flooding and conflict this year, casting a shadow on a mostly sunny outlook for Southeast Asia’s output of the key grain as the region deals with other potential longer term supply troubles, farm officials and researchers say.

Poverty and hunger are stalking some rural communities in peninsular Southeast Asia, also called Indochina, as a result of lost crops, hitting populations still struggling to recover from lost income and other fallout from widespread economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, the poorest Southeast Asian nations, are not major players in rice production in a sector dominated by Thailand and Vietnam, which lead the world in exports of the grain. Southeast Asia accounts for 26 percent of global rice production and 40 percent of exports, supplying populous neighbors Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Africa and the Middle East, according the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

But their harvest shortfalls have to be made up from other suppliers, and any serious deterioration in rice output could have ripple effects on import-dependent countries in Asia. The challenge is more acute at a time of deepening worries over food security and rising food prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has removed those countries’ key grain exports from global supplies.

A man transports bags of rice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 17, 2019. Credit: AFP

Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management reported early this month that floods inundated some 770 villages in 22 provinces, including Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear. More than 150,000 hectares of rice paddies were flooded more than 100,000 families were affected by the floods, a committee official told local media.

Banteay Meanchey farmer Voeun Pheap told RFA that floods destroyed more than four hectares of his farm and brought immediate hardship to his family as it wiped out his crop and the hope of paying off what he borrowed to plant.

“I couldn’t make much money, I lost my investments, and I am in debt,” he said.

In Laos, an agriculture and forestry official in Hua Phanh province told RFA that flooding in two districts had wiped out rice crops and left 200 families with no harvest to eat or sell.

“Sand is covering the rice fields all over due to heavy rain, which destroyed both rice paddies and dry rice fields,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“Families that have been affected will go hungry this year. The damage is so enormous that villagers will have to seek food from the forest or sell other crops that were not affected,” the official added.

People reach out to buy subsidized rice from government officials in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 27, 2008. Credit: AFP
People reach out to buy subsidized rice from government officials in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 27, 2008. Credit: AFP

Fear, fighting leave fallow fields

More than 18 months after a military coup toppled a popular civilian government and plunged Myanmar into political and military conflict, the country of 54 million faces security threats to its rice supply on top of the environmental and economic problems faced by its neighbors.

“I am too afraid to leave my home,” said Myo Thant, a local farmer in the town of Shwebo in the Sagaing region, a farming region in central Myanmar that has been a main theater of fighting between ruling army junta forces and local militias opposed to army rule.

“I can’t fertilize the fields and I can’t do irrigation work,” he told RFA

“The harvest will be down. We will barely have enough food for ourselves,” added Myo Thant.

Farmers groups told RFA that in irrigated paddy farms across Myanmar, planting reduced due to the security challenges as well as to rising prices for fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Growers are limiting their planting to rain-fed rice fields.

“Only 60 percent of (paddy) farms will grow this year, which means that the production will be reduced by about 40 percent,” Zaw Yan of the Myanmar Farmers Representative Network told RFA.

Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar junta chief, told a meeting August that of 33.2 million acres of farmland available for rice cultivation, only 15 million acres of rainy reason rice and 3 million acres of irrigated summer paddy rice are being grown.

Brighter regional outlook

This year’s flooding has caused crop losses and concern in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, but so far it doesn’t appear to have dented the regional outlook for the grain, thanks to expected big crops and surpluses in powerhouse exporters Thailand and Vietnam. World stocks have been buoyed by India’s emergence as the top rice exporter of the grain.

In this June 5, 2015 photo, workers load sacks of imported Vietnam rice onto trucks from a ship docked at a port area in Manila, Philippines.Credit: Reuters
In this June 5, 2015 photo, workers load sacks of imported Vietnam rice onto trucks from a ship docked at a port area in Manila, Philippines.Credit: Reuters

Although Myanmar is embroiled in conflict and largely cut off from world commerce, Cambodia exported 2.06 million tons of milled and paddy rice worth nearly $616 million in the first half of 2022, a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2021, the country’s farm ministry said in July. Laos was the world’s 25th largest rice exporter in 2020.

A report released this month by U.S. Department of Agriculture saw continued large exports from Thailand and Vietnam likely into 2023, offsetting drops in shipments of the grain from other suppliers.

While the USDA has projected that Southeast Asia’s rice surplus will continue, a research team at Nature Food that studied rice output in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam suggested the region might lose its global Rice Bowl status. The threats include stagnating crop yields, limited new land for agriculture, and climate change.

“Over the past decades, through renewed efforts, countries in Southeast Asia were able to increase rice yields, and the region as a whole has continued to produce a large amount of rice that exceeded regional demand, allowing a rice surplus to be exported to other countries,” the study said.

“At issue is whether the region will be able to retain its title as a major global rice supplier in the context of increasing global and regional rice demand, yield stagnation and limited room for cropland expansion,” it warned.

Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Hawaii said he and other researchers interviewed 100 households in major rice-growing areas of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and found that a key constraint on output was planting decisions based on price and labor availability and cost. Flooding and climate change were not cited.

Rice and money are offered at a Buddhist shrine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 28, 2010. Credit: AFP
Rice and money are offered at a Buddhist shrine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 28, 2010. Credit: AFP

“Since about 2014 until Ukraine, rice prices have been below the ten-year average.  They’re not going to plant it if they’re not making much money,” he told RFA.

“Another thing our work has shown is that the main thing that’s happened since 2020 is they’ve mechanized the hell out of everything. Japan led the way in making smaller combines and plows and all of that stuff, so everything is mechanized and they can use much less labor,” said Fox.

Long-term damage

Rising global demand and higher prices, as well as government policies that encourage rice production in Thailand, Vietnam and others, can help address supply gaps, he added.

For farmers in Laos, however, a brighter regional or global supply outlook provides little comfort for now.

“Next year, farmers can’t grow rice again because the irrigation system and rice fields are damaged. If the government doesn’t help fix this, the villagers can’t do it because they have no money. Flooding is short term problem but the irrigation system damage is long term,” said a resident of Na Mor village in Oudomxay province.

And higher prices for rice can cut two ways, encouraging more production, but pinching consumers.

“Our family of five is struggling to make ends meet,” said a low-income government worker in the suburbs of the Lao capital Vientiane.

“We spend the majority of my income just for rice.”

Translated by Samean Yun, Ye Kang Myint Maung, and Sidney Khotpanya. Written by Paul Eckert.





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