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Originally published Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Drought's impact felt far beyond rice crop

Lindsay Renwick, the mayor of this dusty southern Australian town, remembers the constant whir of the rice mill. "It was our little heartbeat...

The New York Times

DENILIQUIN, Australia — Lindsay Renwick, the mayor of this dusty southern Australian town, remembers the constant whir of the rice mill. "It was our little heartbeat out there, tickety-tick-tickety," he said, imitating the giant fans that dried the rice, "and now it has stopped."

The Deniliquin mill, the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere, once processed enough grain to satisfy the daily needs of 20 million people. But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia's rice crop by 98 percent and leading to the mothballing of the mill last December.

Ten thousand miles separate the mill's hushed rows of oversized silos and sheds from the riotous streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but a widening global crisis unites them.

The collapse of Australia's rice production is one of several factors contributing to a doubling of rice prices in the past three months — increases that have led the world's largest exporters to restrict exports severely, spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries including Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Italy.

Drought affects every agricultural industry based here, not just rice — from sheepherding, the other mainstay in this dusty land, to the cultivation of wine grapes, the fastest-growing crop here, with that expansion often coming at the expense of rice.

And not just this region is concerned. The chief executive of the National Farmers' Federation in Australia, Ben Fargher, says, "Climate change is potentially the biggest risk to Australian agriculture."

But it is the drought's effect on rice that has produced the greatest impact on the rest of the world, so far. It is one factor contributing to skyrocketing prices, and many scientists believe it is among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production.

While a link between short-term changes in weather and long-term climate change is not certain, the unusually severe drought is consistent with what climatologists predict will be a problem of increasing frequency.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up by the United Nations, predicted last year that even slight warming would decrease agricultural output in tropical and subtropical countries.

Moderate warming could benefit crop and pasture yields in countries far from the equator, like Canada and Russia. In fact, the net effect of moderate warming is likely to be higher total food production around the world in the next several decades.

But the scientists said the effect would be uneven, and enormous quantities of food would need to be shipped from areas farther from the equator to feed the populations of often less-affluent countries closer to the equator.

The global agricultural crisis is threatening to become a political one, pitting the United States and other developed countries against the developing world over the need for affordable food versus the need for renewable energy. Many poorer nations worry that subsidies from rich countries to support biofuels, which turn food, like corn, into fuel, are pushing up the price of staples. The World Bank and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization both called on major agricultural countries to overhaul policies to avoid a social explosion from rising food prices.

With rice, which is not used to make biofuel, the problem is availability. Even in normal times, little of the world's rice is actually exported — more than 90 percent is consumed in the countries where it is grown. In the past quarter-century, rice consumption has outpaced production, with global reserves plunging by half just since 2000. Current economic uncertainty has led producers to hoard rice and speculators and investors even see it as a lucrative, or at least safe, investment.

All these factors have made countries that buy rice on the global market vulnerable to extreme price swings.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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