Australia, which will export barely one-tenth of its usual average this year, has been blamed for contributing to global shortages and a more than doubling of the global rice price.
Around the world, countries are restricting exports of rice and other grains as food prices rocket and nations move to ensure their own food security.
The international price of rice has risen 118% in the past year, with some supermarkets in the U.S. having taken to rationing rice.
Sunrice chief executive Gary Helou says the accusation against Australia is “terribly ill-informed” as “these so-called (US) food shortages, they are in a very small number of supermarkets in ethnic-dominated areas in California.”
Helou points out the US is “a massive exporter of rice” and that “we are nothing compared to them. As if they are going to run out of rice in America.”
World rice exports have been rising, from 22.7 million tonnes in 2000 to a forecast 29.6 million tonnes this year. Australia plays a small role: at most it has exported 667,000 tonnes, compared with Thailand, which exports between six million and 10 million tonnes. This year, because of the drought, Australia will export just 70,000 tonnes.
Its main markets are the Pacific region, parts of Asia and the Middle East.
Helou says that those areas are being supplied by Thailand, Vietnam and the US and emphasises that “Australia is an extremely small player.”
He says Australia produces temperate, medium-grain rice, but most of the trade is in tropical, long-grain rice.
“We are not a major player in long grain, only in the medium grain, and that is a very localised and very small part of the international rice game.”
Ricegrowers Association president Les Gordon admits it is frustrating to have such high prices and no rice to sell.
If it rains, he says, rice growers will go back into production.
“It is an annual crop, so when there is water available, we grow a crop; when there is not water, we don’t,” he says.
“We would sooner be growing a crop, obviously. But if it rains this winter, and we end up with the dams full, we will plant a crop next October and we will harvest it next March, and we will be feeding people again, which is what we do.”