The Food and Agriculture Organisation recently warned food prices are at record levels in both nominal and real terms since the entity first published its Food Price Index in 1990. The International Monetary Fund stated this is unlikely to be a temporary trend.
Rice generally has not shown the kind of increase exhibited by other foodstuffs, however. For Malaysia, where the majority considers rice a staple food, this is good news. Yet, it is probably just a matter of time before prices begin to increase.
Rice prices did hit outrageous levels in the past years. In 2008, it rose so high that it triggered some kind of a panic in a number of rice-consuming countries.
In Malaysia, shortage was reported in some places. The Abdullah administration tried to address the concern by purchasing an emergency supply from Thailand.
Implementation of rice exports ban by several of the world’s largest exporters of rice exacerbated the increase in price. Two particular countries that imposed the ban were India and Vietnam. Both make up more than 25 per cent of the world’s rice exports currently.
The impact of high rice prices, the role of rice as staple food and the implementation of exports ban are important while considering the following fact: According to the agriculture and agro-based industry deputy minister, imports fulfilled 30 per cent of Malaysia’s domestic rice consumption in 2010. Malaysia sources some of its rice supply from India and Vietnam.
The protectionist policy works for exporting countries by isolating domestic prices from international ones, if the goal is to have low prices in the domestic market. With less competitive demand for domestic rice, domestic prices will fall or at least it will not rise as fast as world prices given specific circumstances.
Governments around the world are aware of the adverse effects of high food prices for their respective society. Examples are aplenty.
In 2007, Mexicans took to the streets protesting against rising corn prices. Rising food prices — specifically bread — is partly fuelling the ongoing protests and revolution in the Middle East.
In short, at the macro level, a ban benefits the exporting countries at the expense of the importing ones.
What solved the issue of rising world prices was the financial crisis that began soon afterward. The protectionist policy gave way to other pressing concerns.
The respite from expensive rice is appearing to end. Eventually, the concern for rice supply and prices will take centre stage again and so will the protectionist policy of exports ban.
The concern is not theoretical. India continues to maintain an exports ban on non-basmati rice. Myanmar recently imposed a ban to slow the rising price.
For importers of rice, it is in their interest to have exporters remove the exports ban. That will mitigate the rise of global prices. This is a concrete example of how free trade benefits Malaysians and how protectionist policy hurts.
There is a silver lining to all this, if it could be called that. Rising prices coupled with the prevalence of exports ban is causing countries like Malaysia to boost its own rice production. Yet, a domestic production boost is at best a second best alternative to the free trade scenario.
The free trade scenario is cheaper in terms of opportunity cost. Trade enables specialization and that frees up resources for other more productive endeavors that Malaysia might embark upon.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on March 24 2011.