As UK supermarkets ration fruits and vegetables, many blame Brexit for shortages

Due to a shortage of certain fruits and vegetables, British supermarkets have been forced to ration their supplies. This situation is likely to continue for some time, leading to fears of price hikes. But how did the UK get to this point? While most officials say that bad weather and rising energy prices are to blame, some observers are pointing the finger at Brexit.

As the UK experiences shortages of some fruits and vegetables, several supermarket chains have been forced to limit the number of products each of their customers can purchase. Some are only allowing three tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers per person.

The British government has blamed the shortfalls on extreme weather conditions in Spain and North Africa – where most of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the UK this time of year are sourced – which have affected harvests.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), the trade association representing UK retailers, says the shortages are expected to last for “a few weeks” until the UK growing season begins in the spring, giving shops alternative sources of supply.

Environment Minister Therese Coffey caused an uproar on Thursday by suggesting that Britons should eat fewer tomatoes and more turnips, fueling the debate over the reasons for the scarcity. While many say that bad weather conditions and rising energy prices are to blame, others are pointing the finger at the UK government and Brexit.

Extreme weather conditions 

Exceptionally cold weather in Spain, flooding in Morocco and storms that have severely disrupted the transport of goods are just some of the reasons why the UK is experiencing a fruit and vegetable shortage, according to the BRC. During the winter months, the UK imports around 95% of its tomatoes and 90% of its lettuce from Spain and North Africa.

However, the UK has experienced extreme weather conditions as well. Heatwaves earlier this year led to the fourth-hottest summer on record, with temperatures exceeding 40°C for the first time. In December, the country was hit by a series of severe and prolonged frosts.

This makes it difficult for the UK to rely on local producers, or even those in the Netherlands, another of its major food trading partners. Due to rising electricity prices, farmers in both countries have been forced to use their greenhouses less and concentrate their efforts on winter crops.

Energy crisis 

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the Netherlands was hit hard by the energy crisis. “Energy was 200% more expensive in September than in the same month last year” compared with 151% in August, Statistics Netherlands announced in October.

The Netherlands, which is the fifth-largest economy in the European Union (EU), is trying to end its dependence on Russian gas and now has one of the highest inflation rates in Europe, at one point surpassing 17%.

Tim O’Malley, chief executive of Nationwide Produce, one of the UK’s largest fresh food producers, told the BBC last week that shortages could lead to price increases in the coming weeks.

UK retailers will have to find alternative sources of supply and rely on locally produced crops. The National Farmers Union, the country’s main farming union, has asked the government for a support plan geared to producers. GOV.UK announced last week that more than £168 million, or €190 million, has already been paid to British farmers.

Rachael Flaszczak, who owns a café near Manchester, told the BBC she was struggling to get eggs, tomatoes, spinach and rocket. “We go to the supermarket to try and get our stock for the next day and we just see empty, overturned crates,” she said, going so far as to suggest a completely different cause. “There’s no shortage over there [in the EU], so it has to be something to do with Brexit.”

Brexit to blame?

According to the farmers’ union, which says that Brexit rules are one of the reasons why the UK is currently experiencing this situation, shortages of certain fruits and vegetables could be just the “tip of the iceberg”.

The Guardian cited the union’s vice president, Tom Bradshaw, as saying that the shortage was probably an indirect consequence of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

“It’s really interesting that before Brexit we didn’t used to source anything, or very little, from Morocco,” he said. “But we’ve been forced to go further afield and now these climatic shocks becoming more prevalent have had a real impact on the food available on our shelves today.”

Justin King, the former CEO of Sainsbury’s (the second-largest supermarket chain in the UK), is one of many experts who agrees with Bradshaw. During an interview with LBC radio, he said that the supermarket sector has been “horribly affected” by Brexit.

Continental Europeans on social media have shared photos of their well-stocked supermarket shelves to expose the reality of recent food shortages across the UK.

Mick Hucknall, lead singer of the British pop group Simply Red, called on his Twitter followers in continental Europe to post photos of their supermarket shelves, also implicitly blaming Brexit.

“For the sake of balanced fairness can some of our mainland European friends pls post photos of their supermarket food shortages?” he tweeted.

Many – especially in France – obliged.

Some harbour no doubt that Brexit is to blame. “The reason that we have food shortages in Britain, and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the European Union – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply,” said Liz Webster, the president of Save British Farming.

In an interview with LBC, she said the only solution to the foot shortage would be to return to the single market and customs union “as quickly as possible”.

Crop science specialist Jim Monaghan provided a more nuanced view during his interview on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. “I haven’t spoken to a business who said Brexit has made it easier. There is a range of opinions to the extent of the problem. Getting hold of labour has become more difficult. Moving crops between Europe and the UK has become more difficult, but there are some other issues which are not Brexit-related,” he said. These include disastrous weather conditions, the energy crisis and transport problems caused by the recent nationwide strikes.

Some British wholesalers, importers and retailers dismiss the idea that Brexit is responsible for shortages, arguing that Ireland, an EU member, is also experiencing them, according to the BBC. They say lower domestic production, more complex supply chains and a more price-sensitive market are more to blame for food shortages than Brexit.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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‘A wake-up call for the industry’: Meat production in France under scrutiny amid climate change

As meat consumption remains the biggest contributor to food-related greenhouse gas emissions, developing more eco-responsible habits requires changes to our diets. For livestock farmers, this translates into a need to find new ways of production.

Following Neige (Snow), Idéale (Perfect) and Imminence, the new ambassador of the International Agriculture Show, which opened February 25 in Paris, isOvalie, a 5-year-old cow of the Salers breed. As usual, the star gets to have her photo printed on posters for this annual event and her official public presentation is also set to be one of the high points of the show. This tradition highlights the importance of animal husbandry in French agriculture. But as climate activists often decry the environmental impact of meat production, the show also serves as an occasion to rethink our methods of production as well as the steaks on our plates.

On a global scale, meat consumption continues to rise: It has multiplied by almost five over the past 60 years, growing from 71 million tonnes in 1961 to 339 million tonnes in 2021, according to statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This production has massive consequences for climate change: The livestock sector is responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions derived from human activities and half of the emissions of the agricultural sector worldwide.

The main culprit of greenhouse gas emissions on our plates

“In France, we eat an average of 100 to 110 grams per day per person, which is the equivalent of 85 kilograms per year. Twice the global average”, noted agricultural economist Carine Barbier, researcher for the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and The International Research Centre on Environment and Development (CIRED). A mere quarter of the population describes itself as flexitarian, eating meat only occasionally, while 2.2 percent describes itself as vegetarian.

“It’s the principal cause of dietary-related greenhouse gas emissions” Barbier added. “Ultimately, the whole food industry already represents 25 percent of French emissions, this includes the entire process, from the production to our plates as well as imports. Animal farming alone represents 9 percent of total emissions.”

Due to emissions of three types of greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide and methane – into the atmosphere, animal husbandry is costing the planet dearly. “CO2 emissions come from the use of fossil fuel for transportation, namely imports, (and) the use of machinery in agriculture as well as in the food processing industry and large retail outlets,” the expert explained. Nitrous oxide (N2O), on the other hand, “comes from the use of mineral nitrogen fertilisers in fields”, and methane is produced by the digestive system of cattle. Although not as well known as carbon dioxide, the latter two gases are not less harmful: N2O reflects 300 times as much heat as CO2 while methane reflects 28 times as much.

“Therefore we have to differentiate between ruminants, swine and poultry”, Barbier said. “Due to their particular digestive system, ruminants have a larger impact on the climate.” According to the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME), a kilogram of beef represents around 14 kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), which includes CO2, nitrous oxide and methane, 10 times that of poultry.

On top of its climate impact, animal farming is also responsible for detrimental effects on the environment. According to a 2015 report by the Physics Institution, livestock production accounts for 78 percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss, 80 percent of soil acidification and atmospheric pollution as well as 73 percent of water pollution.

‘It’s a wake-up call for the industry’

Facing this situation, farmers envision several solutions to reduce their environmental impact. In a press release published at the opening of the International Agriculture Show, the national inter-professional association of cattle and meat (Interbev) says it aims to reduce the beef sector’s carbon footprint by 15 percent in 2025, compared to 2015.

“It’s a wake-up call for the entire industry to the urgency of climate change,” the president of Interbev’s beef sector Emmanuel Bernard said. “As animal farmers, we are the first to suffer from global warming and its consequences.”

Barbier suggested that farmers move “towards more extensive breeding with a higher consumption of grass, and thus limiting the production of cereal used in fodder. This in turn reduces the use of fertilisers and pesticides.”

“We also have to cut down on imports of animal feed. I’m thinking of, for example, soybean meal imported from Brazil that leans heavily on transport. Currently, transportation represents more than one-fifth of the food industry’s carbon footprint,” she continued. “Why not return to crop-livestock systems in which farmers grow most of what the animals need by themselves?”

Bernard tires to heed this advice as a farmer. Thirty years ago, he took over the family ranch located in Nièvre. Today, he is accountable for 110 charolais cows à vêler (to calve), meaning they are destined to give birth to calves to be fattened before being sent to slaughterhouses. For a few years now, he has also started adding installations to make his farm more eco-friendly.

“I don’t import any soy products. My cows and calves mostly feed on grass, fodder and cereal that I grow myself, on my land. Among the 220 hectares of land, 125 hectares are meadows while 25 hectares are used for growing cereal”, he said.

Three years ago, Bernard went even further and submitted his practices for evaluation to CAP2ER, which provides a diagnosis of gas emissions. It’s a five-year process that should allow him to explore new ways to reduce his carbon footprint. “I envision, for example, cultivating meslin, which is a mix of cereal and protein crop, instead of maize.”

Adjusting herd sizes

But to make further progress in transforming large-scale farming methods, “it’s absolutely necessary to start reducing herd sizes”, Barbier insisted. These practical changes would set into motion a virtuous cycle. “For example, by cutting back on meat in our diets and decreasing cereal fodder and oil and protein crops used in animal feed, we would increase the area of arable land that we can use to grow crops for human consumption,” she added.

France has already announced its aim to reduce herd sizes via the National Low-Carbon Strategy for agriculture published in June 2021, which targets a 13 percent reduction by 2030. The target is lower than what the scientific community recommends. Nevertheless, the trend is already growing among animal farms, as the total number of lactating and milk cows declined by 8 percent between 2000 and 2019 according to the Institut de l’élevage (IDELE). The same has been noted for sheep, which saw a decrease of 8.3 percent from 2011 to 2020 while the number of sows in the swine industry have dropped by 19 percent in 10 years.

“Initiating this transition towards more sustainable agricultural practices is nowadays indispensable in order to render the farming system more resilient against climate change all the while reinsuring our food sovereignty”, Barbier emphasised, pointing to the fact that the animal husbandry sector is already in a crisis. “But to do this, we need stronger support from the European Union. We have to ensure a steady stream of income during this transition period.”

“Currently we are producing a lot of diagnosis and observations on the problems surrounding animal farming, but we struggle to implant real methods of change”, the farmer Bernard added. “And the main reason behind this is tied to finances. If we had real political support, we would be ready to make the change.”

“Without all that, we risk becoming less competitive than other countries and this would drive imports”, he stressed. “It would neither be good for us, nor the climate.”

A revolution on our plates

Meanwhile, real changes in production cannot take place without consumers, according to Barbier, who authored a study published in October establishing multiple scenarios for a carbon neutral diet by 2050. “Above all else, we need to reduce our meat consumption. That’s what will prompt farmers to transition.”

In addition to purely ecological thinking, she also advanced several nutritional arguments. “In any case, we consume too much protein, around 80 percent more than what we need,” the expert continued, pointing to oft-illustrated cardiovascular risks linked to overconsumption of meat. In 2019, a commission formed by the medical journal The Lancet estimated that Europeans should cut their red meat consumption by 77 percent while doubling fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes in order to respect the limits of Earth’s resources and to maintain their own health. “Reducing our consumption to reflect our real needs will considerably decrease the carbon footprint of our diets.”

“If we stick to the most moderate scenario, then we need to cut down two-thirds of our meat consumption and half that of mik products”, she explained. “By no means do we seek to remove meat completely from the entire population’s plates. It is a question of developing our diet and animal-farming practices to reach carbon neutrality.

Favour plant-based options

Numerous plant-based alternatives exist in order to help implement these changes to our dietary habits and progressively decrease meat portions on our plates. The first and the most obvious one is to consume more cereal and protein-rich legumes such as lentils and chickpeas.

In the last few years, supermarkets have started to push out more and more plant-based meat substitutes. Among them are “plant-based steaks”, “fake bacon bits”, and “plant-based meat strips” made from peas, tofu or soybeans that imitate the taste and texture of beef or chicken. “Nowadays, all of these options imitate meat quite well and can be a helpful way to change one’s habits”, said Tom Bry-Chevalier, an expert in alternative meats and a doctoral student at the University of Lorraine.

“This is all the better since we now know that these options have a lesser impact on climate than meat”, he said. According to a recent study, yhese plant-based substitutes emit 10 times less greenhouse gas than beef, and as much as 25 times less for tofu.

A report from Boston Consulting Group published in July estimates that the “investments in plant-based alternatives to meat” are “much more efficient in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than other green investments”. Each euro invested in these products has up to three times as much impact as it would have if placed in renovating buildings and 11 times as much as in the production of electric cars”.

“Another alternative could be the development of laboratory-grown meat, produced directly from animal cells”, Bry-Chevalier continued. Despite rapid growth with dozens of start-ups worldwide, the project remains for now at the laboratory stage.

“This option also has its limits. First of all, lab-grown meat is still tied to high emissions if the energy used to produce it is not carbon neutral”, Bry-Chevalier said. “But most importantly, we are still very far away from large-scale commercialisation while the climate crisis is an emergency. We can’t afford to wait for lab-grown meat to change our habits.”

According to Barbier, plant-based steaks and lab-grown meat – if they develop – must be seen as resources for transition. “We already have all the necessary ingredients for our daily protein needs thanks to vegetables,” she said. “Let us offer delicious vegetarian dishes in collective food halls, let people choose their meat portions there … It could really make a difference.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”


Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year.

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.

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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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