Cumulative cereal crises (1)

Climate change can be expected to set off multiple simultaneous food crises around the world. The following post started with a story about rice, then collected a footnote about wheat from war-torn Ukraine and another from southern Europe in the grip of a drought. It could have had a snippet from north America’s struggling maize crop, but that will have to wait.


India is curbing its rice exports in the face of predicted shortages. The country is the world’s biggest exporter of rice, selling 22,000 tonnes abroad in the crop year 2023. An estimated 10% of the world’s rice production is exported and traded internationally, according to data curated by the All India Rice Exporters Association . The tonnages traded internationally are less than one might have expected for one of the world’s most important cereal crops: global production tops 50 million tonnes.

In all its diverse forms, rice supplies about a fifth of the human calorie intake. As a labour intensive crop with very specific irrigation needs, rice does not travel as far or as readily as other mainstream cereals like wheat or barley. Rice is a complex commodity, with many specialist varieties and qualities. Indian rice growers produce premium grades of scented basmati rice for export sales, in addition to more basic varieties. The guiding principle is that all basmati rice is scented, but not all scented rice is basmati.

The first two months of the new growing season (2023-2024) have seen growth of just over 6% in volumes traded internationally, even though India imposed an export duty of 20% on rice part way through the 2022 crop year. The additional duty has not damped down demand, which remains strong. The current season has been hit by more rain and flooding than usual. “We are still keeping our fingers crossed over the likely impact of El Nino” AIREA president Nathi Ram Gupta told his members.

Rice export figures from India and all the significant growing areas across the world for the 2022-23 crop year have not moved dramatically against previous years. But past performance is a notoriously unreliable indicator of future shortages in any sector of the world economy.

This week there are reports of Russian military action destroying a grain silo in Odessa. First reports suggest that 40,000 tonnes of wheat were destroyed in the attack: more significantly the action removes storage capacity for 120,000 tonnes of grain in the middle of the harvest. One single incident casts a shadow over both dockside facilities and the safety of shipping that up until now had been able to deliver wheat to east Africa.

With southern Europe in the grip of a persistent heat wave, there are signs of firmer prices for durum wheat, which is grown across Spain and Italy. Since July 1, prices for European durum wheat price have bottomed out from a pre-harvest low point of around 330 Euros/tonne and moved up to almost 400 by late July. Southern European shoppers are high volume consumers of pasta, which is likely to push up prices of durum wheat in the coming weeks.

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