Bangladesh started its rice harvest on Thursday with hopes of a bumper crop, but a farmland crunch in China and the Philippines underlines trouble ahead in dealing with the global food crisis.
Rice prices in impoverished Bangladesh, which have doubled in the past 12 months, have started falling as hoarders sell stocks before new supplies come on the market, officials said.
"With the bumper 'Boro' harvest that's expected and the sufficiency in strategic stocks, there's unlikely to be a (food) crisis in this country," said Bangladesh Foreign Minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury.
But Chowdhury renewed an appeal for a global strategy to tackle spiralling worldwide commodity prices, saying the United Nations was perhaps best suited to handle it.
The upbeat news from Bangladesh came as Chinese state press said the amount of farmland in China shrank closer to critical levels last year and the Philippines banned the conversion of farmland to other uses.
With a sharp rise in the price of basic foodstuffs, protests have erupted in countries across the world including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Mauritania.
Anger over high prices and low wages erupted into violence last Saturday in Bangladesh when 10,000 garment workers rioted near the capital Dhaka, smashing cars and buses and vandalising factories.
Last weekend, Haiti's premier was ousted in a no-confidence vote after more than a week of violent demonstrations over rocketing food and fuel prices that left at least five people dead, according to an unofficial count.
Record oil prices – New York's main oil futures contract held steady near $115 a barrel Thursday – have exacerbated the crisis, cutting into cash consumers have not already spent on food and hitting the poor particularly hard.
Bangladesh Food Secretary Mollah Wahiduzzaman noted that prices had already fallen by 60-70 taka ($1) per 40 kilogrammes (88 pounds) in the expectation of the new crop from the Boro, or cool-dry, harvest.
"We hope a bumper harvest will cool down the market for months," he added.
Bangladesh, a net rice and wheat importer, last year produced 30.5 million tonnes of rice, more than half of which was produced during the Boro season, according to government agriculture officials.
This Boro season, "we expect the total yield to be over 18 million tonnes – or two-thirds of our total annual rice output," said farm official Shahidul Islam.
Farmers this season have tilled almost all their land to cultivate rice in expectation of better prices and to meet a shortfall caused by last summer's floods and a devastating cyclone in November.
However, in a sign of the government's growing desperation, the military head of the emergency-ruled nation earlier this month told villagers to eat potatoes in a bid to reduce spiralling demand for rice.
In China, which is facing its own problems of escalating food prices, state press said the amount of arable land last year fell by 40,700 hectares (100,500 acres) to 121.73 million hectares.
China regards 120 million hectares as the critical level.
The news followed a government announcement on Wednesday that food prices jumped 21 percent in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, the Philippines announced a ban on Thursday on converting farmland to other uses in the latest move to cut imports of rice, which have more than doubled in price since the beginning of the year.
The Philippines – the world's top rice importer – said the ban was aimed at property developers cashing in on a booming market by snapping up choice farmland.
On Wednesday it unveiled plans to become self-sufficient in rice and other vital crops by 2010.
Indonesia this week banned its farmers from selling rice abroad and Kazakhstan, one of the world's top producers of wheat, halted foreign sales. (AFP)
Bangladesh eyes bumper rice crop amid global food crisis