A bowl of rice might not seem like much on the surface, but when you start looking at how the grains get into that bowl, a whole world of buying and trading that spans across the globe opens up. It is the subject of an award-winning documentary film that airs on 13 April on the Franco-German television channel Arte.
Commodities don’t exactly light up the imagination. Jean-Pierre Boris, a journalist at RFI who has specialized in commodities for over ten years, concedes that the subject can seem boring.
“When you think of commodities, you think of the Chicago exchange and money being moved all around the world,” he says. “But that’s only part of it. In commodities you have a lot of human beings involved in all those deals.”
And he says that rice is even more interesting, because there is no fixed market. Boris is the co-author of the film Main basse sur le riz (translated as Hands off our rice) and wrote a book with the same title that was published at the end of March.
“Rice is not being priced on an organised market,” he explains. “You don’t have an exchange like you have for wheat and other seeds like soy. Rice is being priced between you and me.”
With over 100,000 varieties of rice, it’s impossible to fix a price. And as a staple that feeds half the world’s population, the rice market gets negotiated by hundreds - if not thousands - of people across the globe.
A large amount of Asian rice is sold in Africa, for example, something that captured the interest of Boris’ collaborator, film director Jean Crépu.
“He went to Africa a few years ago and he was stunned at seeing so much rice coming from Asia. He was wondering why there was so much rice from Thailand and Vietnam being sold on African markets.”
But that by itself was not enough to interest a producer to get the film made. The idea was rekindled in 2008, though, after people all over the world, from Africa to Asia to the Caribbean, rioted because of rising food prices.
The filmmakers were asked to follow the rice trail and find out what happened during the so-called food crisis. And they found that the crisis had nothing to do with the actual supply of rice, and everything to do with the markets.
“First, the crops of the two main Asia rice exporters – Vietnam and Thailand – were delayed because of bad monsoons,” explains Boris, tracing the crisis from its origins in 2007. “And so the Indians, who are huge exporters too, decided to put a ban on their exports.”
At this point, governments around the world were starting to worry about having enough rice, but it was the Philippines that tipped the situation into a crisis.
“The Philippine government decided to import a huge amount of rice,” says Boris. The government imported some 2.5 million tons, a million more than it had imported the year before.
They did this “partly because they needed it, and partly because the buyers are corrupt people - corrupt civil servants, corrupt politicians - who receive commissions for each ton of rice they buy,” explains Boris.
Prices shot up as traders realised the global supply of rice was being hoarded by panicked governments. And so the cost for the end users in Africa, the households in Senegal and Mali as documented by the filmmakers, skyrocketed.
In the spring of 2008, the price of rice went up by a factor of six, which infuriated consumers who already live on very little.
The situation was unprecedented, but Boris says everyone involved benefitted. Everyone along the chain of buying and selling decided to hold off selling as prices went up.
“Everyone decided to hold on the rice cargos for a week, for two weeks, to get a few more dollars for each ton,” says Boris. “And so at the end, the end the African countries had their rice, but late, and very expensive.”
The later part of the film, and Boris’s book, focuses on how African countries are trying to become self-sufficient. Until recently they were encouraged by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to import rice and grow other crops like peanuts to pay for it.
But the food crisis made leaders rethink this policy.
“What we have seen during our trips to African countries - in Mali and Senegal - is that the African governments consider they cannot afford not to be self- sufficient,” says Boris.
And according to people in the film they can do it, with enough investment in infrastructure and technological advances in rice production.
As both the film and book show, rice is about the intersection of culture and economics: what people want to eat, and what they can afford. It’s also about development, and how poor countries are moving away from agriculture towards the cities - something that struck Boris while making this film, particularly in the Philippines
“When you are in France and you work on these kinds of topics, you read every day and you say every day that rice production is going down partly because the peasants are leaving the countryside and going to live in cities,” he says.
“And when you see - you see a rice field with a building in the middle of it - what I saw in Manila, in the outskirts of Manila - you really understand.”
Main basse sure le riz is Jean-Pierre Boris’s fourth book. The film is the first he’s worked on. The film was awarded a gold medal for reportage and current affairs from Fipa, the international festival of audiovisual programmes.