El Nino 'unlikely to affect rice supply'

El Nino 'unlikely to affect rice supply'
A worker piles rice up to two storeys high at a warehouse in Pasir Panjang. It is compulsory for importers to store rice at warehouses like this one. In times of shortage or emergency, the stockpile can last up to three months.

Rice importers here are not losing sleep over El Nino, despite warnings from climatologists.

Forecasts in recent weeks of the strengthening El Nino - a dry weather pattern - warn of droughts and disrupted rice harvests across the Asia-Pacific.

Japan's weather bureau even predicted that the dry spell could be as bad, or even worse than that in 2009, when some rice exporting countries had to ban exports to satisfy domestic demand.

The price of Thai fragrant rice, which importers say is the most popular type here, cost about US$1,400 (S$1,860) a tonne in 2009.

Rice importers, who now pay about US$1,000 a tonne for Thai fragrant rice, told The Straits Times they are better placed to weather the storm now.

Mr Lim Ek Kwong, operations manager of major rice importer See Hoy Chan, said it now imports rice from about 15 suppliers in four countries - Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

In 2009, it imported rice only from five suppliers in Thailand.

"If one country closes its doors to us, we can now still get rice from elsewhere," he said, adding that Thailand still has large stockpiles of rice that will help mitigate the price increases. He has seen no change in prices and supplies in recent times.

Managing director of Chye Choon Foods, Mr Jimmy Soh, said: "So far, it is hearsay. We have asked suppliers to let us know if something happens."

Supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice said prices remained stable and were, in fact, lowered last year. A 5kg bag of FairPrice Fragrant Rice had cost $6.90 since 2011, but was reduced to $6.50 in January last year, said Mrs Mui-Kok Kah Wei, its senior director of purchasing and merchandising.

As a major rice importer in Singapore, NTUC FairPrice stockpiles more than three months of supply at any time, she added.

Sheng Siong supermarket also said that prices of rice are stable, but it is monitoring the situation closely.

When contacted, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said Singapore has "a food import diversification policy to safeguard against any food supply disruptions".

"Apart from our top three import sources, Thailand, India and Vietnam, there is also sufficient supply from other countries including Myanmar, Pakistan and Cambodia," said an MTI spokesman. "There has been no noticeable impact on the quantity and prices of our rice imports so far."

The latest figures from IE Singapore show that 361,930 tonnes of rice were imported in 2011, rising steadily to hit 498,633 tonnes last year, or a rise of 38 per cent.

The past few years had seen a change in the main supply source of rice to Singapore. In 2013, India, for the first time, overtook Thailand as the Republic's biggest rice supplier.

Last year, 37.4 per cent of total rice imports came from India, and 32.3 per cent were from Thailand. In 2009, Thai rice consumed here accounted for 62.1 per cent of total imports.


This article was first published on June 20, 2015.
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