- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

TOKYO - Japan will release some of its huge stockpile of rice to help ease the global food crisis, sending some 20,000 tons to five African nations in coming weeks, a government official said yesterday.

The rice, less than 1 percent of Japan’s 2.23 million surplus tons, is part of a $50 million emergency food aid plan to be endorsed by the Cabinet today, said Shigeru Kondo, a Foreign Ministry aid official.

The total aid package - which includes grains, beans and other foods in addition to rice - will be disbursed in 12 countries, including Afghanistan, by international relief agencies such as the World Food Program.

Japan’s decision to open up its rice warehouses comes as prices of the grain and other staples have jumped around the world, sparking violent protests in some countries.

Rice prices have remained high in Asia, though they have fallen about 20 percent in the U.S. over the past month. Thai 100 percent grade B white rice, a regional benchmark, has tripled this year and fetched $1,038 a ton Wednesday.

“Rice prices are skyrocketing, even though prices of wheat and other crops have somewhat subsided,” Mr. Kondo said. “Our aim is to make effective use of our resources for those who are in dire need of food relief.”

Hunger is likely to increase in poor countries despite record food output in 2008 and the world will have to produce 50 percent more food by 2030, the U.N. food agency said yesterday.

The global food price crisis means “we are facing the risk that the number of hungry will increase by many more millions of people,”said Food and Agriculture Organization assistant director-general Hafez Ghanem.

In addition to the aid package, Japan is considering a request by the Philippines to sell it some 200,000 tons of imported rice to ease rising global prices.

The stocks will mostly come from rice imported by Japan from the United States under international trade rules, so Tokyo needs to first work out details with Washington as the exporter, said a second Foreign Ministry official on the condition of anonymity, citing protocol.

The world’s biggest rice importer, the Philippines also sought Thailand’s agreement yesterday to supply more rice as Manila shored up its inventories, while triggering regional concerns that its aggressive buying was driving up prices.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer praised Japan’s consideration of rice exports to the Philippines.

“The United States welcomes the news that Japan is considering extraordinary measures to respond to this uniquely critical situation,” he said in a statement today.

Japan’s stockpile includes 1.52 million tons of imported rice from the U.S., Thailand and Vietnam in the compulsory “minimum access” annual purchase under the 1993 World Trade Organization agreement. The rest of the stockpile is domestic rice.

The rice is kept in warehouses under a government program to maintain high domestic prices to protect Japanese rice growers.