Soaring prices fuel basmati rice crisis in Britain


London : Low production of basmati rice in India has led to a sharp rise in its price in Britain, threatening the multi-billion pound Indian restaurant business, a British newspaper reported Monday.

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The wholesale price of basmati has doubled in the past year following a weak harvest coupled with soaring demand for the prized aromatic long-grain that is grown only in north India and West Pakistan.

But Tilda, the biggest importer of basmati in Britain, told the Times that prices need to go up by a third to cover rising costs for rice farmers and increasing shipping costs.

“We are looking at further price increases,” Tilda executive Jonathan Calland said.

“With a price increase of 55 percent in March, one would have anticipated more basmati would be sown, but we saw small reduction,” Calland added.

Panic buying by government agencies has put further pressure on the curry industry, which was worth two billion pounds ($4 billion) a year in 1998 and is estimated to be worth much more today due to an exponential rise in the popularity of Indian cuisine in Britain.

The industry employs more than 70,000 people.

The Indian government has already imposed export restrictions on non-basmati rice, fearing food price inflation could follow a decline in global rice stocks.

Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath warned at a gala reception in London Dec 13 that food and fuel were the two biggest challenges for India at the moment, with the price of wheat and rice having doubled in recent months.

In Britain, a kilogram of basmati currently retails for between 2.50 to 3.00 pounds but Calland said the price needs to rise to 3.35 pounds to meet wholesale and shipping costs.

The newspaper said the price rise had led a number of unscrupulous wholesalers to mix basmati, the essential ingredient of pulao, with low-grade and broken rice, creating friction in the catering sector serving the Indian food market in Britain.

Calland said there had been a 10 to 15 percent decline in basmati output, the rising prices apparently an insufficient incentive for Indian farmers to sow more paddy.

The United Arab Emirates government has also imposed a ceiling on the price of rice, but the step has led to importers withdrawing basmati from supermarket shelves.

Meanwhile, Robert Ziegler, head of the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, told the paper that a new Green Revolution was needed to boost rice production, whose global stocks are at their lowest since the mid-1970s.

Revolutionary scientific techniques in India and Mexico, coupled with better crop management, helped boost rice production in the 1970s in the so-called Green Revolution.

With rice production this year expected to fall just below the consumption figure of 430 million tonnes, Ziegler said, “We are facing a problem and it is the poor that are going to be hit most severely.”

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome, food riots have broken out in the past months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.