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From half a world away, rice comments by Arkansas grower

It is one of the ironies of our age of instantaneous worldwide communication and media coverage that there often is more reporting on U.S. agriculture by foreign news organizations than by those in this country.

Granted, much of it is anti-GMO, anti-pesticide, anti-farm programs, anti-anything not organic (which, come to think of it, is not that much different from the U.S. mainstream media), but a number of overseas news operations make agriculture a part of their ongoing coverage.

Chief among them is the British Broadcasting Corporation, which has been extensively covering the impact of rising food prices around the world, particularly rice, the main food for some 3 billion people.

Last week, one of their radio news features included an interview with John Alter, DeWitt, Ark., rice grower, former president of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, and member of the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board.

Noting the sharp rise in rice prices over the last year, which has precipitated riots in several countries, the BBC correspondent suggested “right now things are going extremely well for rice growers” and queried Alter as to whether the record prices mean record profits.

“I couldn't say that, no,” he responded, “because input costs have gone up so much. The increase in price is not all profit. As recent as two years ago, nitrogen fertilizer was selling for $200 per ton — now it's $800. Diesel fuel and all our input costs have just gone through the roof.”

If rice is now so profitable, the interviewer asked, “Why are more and more farmers in your state turning away from rice farming?”

Compared to other grains, Alter said, “Rice is not necessarily more profitable. Many farmers have chosen to produce wheat, soybeans, and corn, because they have much lower input costs.

“Rice is a very expensive crop to produce, and management-intensive as well. Biofuels may be driving some of this — it's a competition, if you will, for the available land. Land now not only produces food, it produces fuel as well.”

The interviewer asked, “Are you saying that biofuels production is directly responsible for the rice price increases?” and “Are you benefiting at the moment from the rice crisis in countries such as Thailand?”

“Not directly,” Alter said, “but it (biofuels) is somewhat a contributing factor. In our global economy, I don't know that it's accurate to say we're benefiting from Thailand's crisis; there's global demand, and global exchange, and we export about half of what we produce.”

Although U.S. rice production is small compared to China, Vietnam, Thailand, and other countries, we are the world's third largest exporter of rice worldwide, with shipments expected to rise 22 percent for the year ending July 31.

Contrast that to India, which ranks in the top five rice producing nations, where a BBC correspondent says the government has banned rice exports, except for a few of the most expensive premium varieties.

India grows enough rice to feed its own people, but unfortunately about 30 percent of that is lost to poor storage and pilferage. Prices have gone up 20 percent in the past two months.

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