What is in this article?:
- Milo Hamilton, rice marketing expert, explains issues facing Asia in bid to feed growing populations.
- Hamilton: "I argue that rice is a political and cultural ‘cement’ that holds Asia together."
- Water rights/use growing concern.
Feeding the rapidly growing world population is a daunting task that will only become harder in coming decades. Facing billions more mouths to feed means concerns about things like crop diseases, keeping yields on an upward trend, and the logistics of moving food are all legitimate.
But often other major issues facing agriculture are given too little consideration, says Milo Hamilton. Among those issues: worldwide water use and the necessity to change government policies and practices to pull poor farmers into the technological age.
Hamilton, president of Firstgrain.com and in the rice trading business for 34 years, says it’s hard to overstate the cultural and historic hold rice has over Asia. “Few know that the Great Wall of China is held together with cement made up of sticky rice and rice hull ash. It’s incredibly strong. I argue that rice is a political and cultural ‘cement’ that holds Asia together.”
Hamilton -- who spoke at the 2014 Farm and Gin Show in Memphis -- lays out his arguments in a recently-released book that he authored, “When Rice Shakes the World: The Importance of the First Grain to World Economic & Political Stability.”
Hamilton spoke with Farm Press in mid-March. Among his comments:
Overview of the book…
“The book started in my mind several years ago. I began to worry about farmers -- not just in the United States but also in Asia. I worried about the rice farmer in particular and how he’ll fare in the next five to 10 years. When I looked into it, the future looked very dark. But there were also possibilities of a much brighter future.
“It’s a bit of a policy book but focuses more on pressing issues like water and migration and where the farmer will end up.
“The general view I have is that you must turn farmers to modernity, not just in terms of inputs and production, but in terms of marketing and having flexible markets to place rice in.”
On rice in the Far East…
“Rice is shaking Thailand, right now. The West must understand that rice isn’t just another vegetable or grain in that part of the world. Rice is a very big deal and always has been.
“The overall thing that we must understand about rice in Asia is that it’s very different to other commodities. The primary issue is that there it’s viewed by these societies as something to be controlled centrally and it has inherent, strategic good.
“On one hand you have standing armies. On the other hand are standing rice stocks. It’s often hard for those in Asia to see the difference between armies and rice. That’s because rice, over the centuries, has toppled regimes. In the last 50 years, of course, there’s been enough government money for farmers to get all sorts of subsidies.”
“China rules everything. Every other Asian nation will be affected by the choices China makes. It was the first in the Socialist/Communist systems to begin to allow markets to happen. Half of their urban society now can buy and sell property to some degree.
“Unfortunately, in China there are not generational families on farms in the sense of owning and developing it. That’s because the farmland has been owned by the state, not the individual.
“That’s a big difference between China and India, where some land has been owned by families for many, many generations.
“China has come to realize that they can’t continue to have farmer daily salaries of $2 on two hectares and expect to enter the modern world of agriculture. They know that. So, there are large swaths of land owned by the state and farmed by individuals who have next to no financial resources of their own. How long would you stay and develop a plot of land without ownership? Not very long.
“Last November, the Chinese decided they’d put forth a policy of returning the farms to the farmers. Eventually, they should be able own, buy, lease or sell land. That’s a dramatic, new idea for them – a reversal of policy that has been in effect since the Communist Revolution.
“The best farming is done by people who own the land. Comparing farms in China to India shows that Indian farmers, who own their land, are often much more advanced.
“In addition, over the next five years, the Chinese government will increase the amount of people under their welfare system by 10 percent. That may not seem like much but it’s 100 million people. Those millions will receive all sorts of benefits and free up more money to buy food.”