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Originally published Monday, June 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nations curb food exports

At least 29 countries have sharply curbed food exports in recent months, to ensure that their own people have enough to eat, at affordable...

The New York Times

BANGKOK, Thailand -- At least 29 countries have sharply curbed food exports in recent months, to ensure that their own people have enough to eat, at affordable prices.

When it comes to rice, India, Vietnam, China and 11 other countries have limited or banned exports.

Fifteen countries, including Pakistan and Bolivia, have capped or halted wheat exports. More than a dozen have limited corn exports. Kazakhstan has restricted exports of sunflower seeds.

The restrictions are making it harder for impoverished importing countries to afford the food they need. The export limits are forcing some of the most vulnerable people, those who rely on relief agencies, to go hungry.

"It's obvious that these export restrictions fuel the fire of price increases," said Pascal Lamy, the director general of the World Trade Organization.

And by increasing perceptions of shortages, the restrictions have led to hoarding around the world, by groups as varied as farmers, traders and consumers.

"People are in a panic, so they are buying more and more -- at least, those who have money are buying," said Conching Vasquez, a 56-year-old rice vendor who sat one recent morning among piles of rice at her large stall in Los Banos, in the Philippines, the world's largest rice importer. Her customers buy 8,000 pounds of rice a day, up from 5,500 pounds a year ago.

The new restrictions are just an acute symptom of a chronic condition. Since 1980, even as trade in services and in manufactured goods has tripled, adjusting for inflation, trade in food has barely increased. Instead, for decades, food has been a convoluted tangle of restrictive rules, in the form of tariffs, quotas and subsidies.

Now, with Australia's farm sector crippled by drought and Argentina suffering a series of strikes and other disruptions, the world is increasingly dependent on a handful of countries such as Thailand, Brazil, Canada and the United States that are still exporting large quantities of food.

Powerful lobbies in affluent countries across the northern hemisphere, from Japan to Western Europe to the United States, have long protected farmers.

The Japanese protect their rice industry by making it nearly impossible for imported rice to compete. The European Union severely limits beef and poultry imports, and Poland goes further, barring soybean imports as well.

Negotiators have been working for years to free trade in farm goods -- but today's crisis actually makes that more difficult for them.

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Food protests in places like Haiti and Indonesia that rely heavily on imported food have convinced many nations that it is more important than ever that they grow, and keep, the food their citizens need.

But as Susan Schwab, the U.S. trade representative, noted, "One country's act to promote food security is another country's food insecurity."

International-relief groups are trying to help people who can no longer afford food at today's higher prices but face difficulties.

"We're having trouble buying the stocks we need for emergency operations," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program in Rome.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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