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Global Poverty: The real price of rice

Rice constitutes the nutritional foundation for the largest part of the planet, since more than 3.5 billion people depend on the specific cereal for obtaining at least 20% of their daily calorie intake. Rice is a staple food for Asia, while its consumption is rapidly increasing both in Africa and Latin America, due to their vast economic development and population growth.

So how does the story of rice unfold? In order to obtain a concrete understanding of the impact that rice has on humans, the environment and the economy, it is vitally important to explore some of the basic concerns that are raised out of its production, trade and consumption.

The increased rice demand poses a great pressure on producers, who in order to respond to the market’s demands resort to monocultures and to continuous usage of chemically-induced fertilisers, soil additives and pesticides. In the meantime, the first varieties of genetically modified rice have been approved in the USA, and with a currently pending request in the EU, the danger for future production of genetically modified rice is highly prevalent. Besides posing several dangers towards human health, the above consequences can be destructive towards the environment and the overall biodiversity of the planet.

Now let’s take a glance at the producer. Who produces this invaluable food? Around 80% of the global rice production is being produced by small-scale producers and consumed locally, while 200 million households in Asia and Africa have their livelihood dependent on its production. In recent years the rice production cost has risen mainly due to the rise in petrol prices, the increased demand and intensification of production, the scarcity of water and lack of suitable soil, but also of the price volatility, speculations and uncertainty in the supply.

The majority of this cost burdens the producers and endangers their food security1 and food sovereignty2 . Simply put, a farmer growing this staple food struggles to afford buying it and providing it to their family. This fact, added to the various health problems that rice farmers face due to the hardship of the manual labour, drives youth away from this sector, causing the gradual aging and decline in the number of rice producers. This vicious cycle constantly detunes the production system of this crop, a fact that eventually impacts the prices in the global market.

According to FAO, even though a mere 5% of the global rice production is traded through the global market, it is still adequate to affect its price in local markets. Perhaps this is less obvious to the average EU citizen who consumes around 8kg of rice annually. When however an average citizen in Myanmar (Burma) consumes 227kg of rice annually, as it constitutes their main dish three times a day while they spend 25-50% of their income on this, then even the slightest fluctuation on the price of rice, is enough to disrupt their food security and place them in conditions of poverty. Importantly, according to FAO, the world already produces 150% of the food required to provide adequate and balanced food to people throughout the planet.

How can we utilise our role as active citizens to improve the overall situation? The first step is becoming aware; this is the only way to make conscious decisions with respect towards humans and to nature. If we reconsider the fact that there are enough resources on the planet to feed us all, we can conclude that part of the problem is the thoughtless food waste, which leads to overproduction. Therefore, if we reduce the amounts of food that we waste, we can reduce production and reverse the unsustainable system described above.

Through our role as citizens we face certain limitations in drastically intervening in the unjust ways rice producers are being treated. However, we can advocate towards our governments to protect them by strengthening the legislations that ensure fair-trade practices. By establishing a fair trade system, small-scale producers will be benefited globally, since they will be able to receive the fair share of the profit that corresponds to their work.
Future Worlds Center along with four partner organisations from the UK, Austria, Bulgaria and Greece, are implementing the programme “Map Your Meal”, which aims at informing citizens around sustainable food production and alternative food systems. As part of the programme we are designing a free mobile application, which will allow consumers to track information regarding the origins of the food, production processes, as well as the impact of producing and trading the specific product on local communities, the environment and the economy. For further information you can refer to Future Worlds Center or visit the programme’s website at

Sophia Arnaouti is the Research Coordinator for the Map Your Meal programme and a member of the Global Education Unit of Future Worlds Center.

* This article was initially published on 11/06/2015 in in Greek under the title ‘Το ρύζι και οι... ρίζες της παγκόσμιας φτώχειας’

1. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), food security is when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life

2. According to the global movement Via Campesina Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector.