By Nomaan Merchant
The Associated Press
ALICIA, Ark. (AP) — After years of effort, U.S. farmers believe they are close to getting permission to sell rice in China, a potentially huge boost for an industry that has seen prices stagnate recently.
If China opens its markets to U.S. rice, it could cause a spike in demand that drives up prices and encourages farmers to grow more, industry observers said. The fast-growing Asian nation is the world’s largest producer of rice, but it consumes nearly everything it grows and already imports some rice from Thailand and Vietnam to feed its 1.3 billion people.
The United States is the world’s fourth-largest rice exporter, shipping to more than 100 countries. But China has resisted opening its markets, saying its inspection agencies have not certified that U.S. rice is safe from disease, bugs, and other pests.
To help move things along, the U.S. Rice Producers Association invited Chinese inspectors to tour farms in Arkansas, California, and Louisiana.
China has long had a policy of self-sufficiency in grains, stockpiling crops such as corn, wheat, and rice to cope with shortages and avoid having to rely on other countries for essentials.
As more migrants move to cities and incomes rise, China’s demand for staples has often outstripped its domestic production. It has had to import “significant quantities” of corn in some years and has grown into the largest importer of soybeans in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s contributed to a spike in demand that’s driven up prices for both of those items.
The great hope is that as China’s middle class becomes wealthier, its members will want to buy high-quality rice from the United States even if it’s more expensive.
“You think of rice as just rice, but I’m always surprised by how sophisticated rice palates are,” said Andy Hewes, partner in a Texas rice marketing firm and publisher of The Rice Market Letter. “Sometimes, even the slightest variations can put people off.”
Greg Yielding, an official with the U.S. Rice Producers Association, has conducted taste tests, where he had shoppers try different varieties of American rice — the short- and medium-grain rice grown in California and the medium- and long-grain rice grown in Arkansas and elsewhere in the South.
But Milo Hamilton, publisher of Firstgrain.com, a rice industry news service, said breaking into China could be tricky.
“You have to be very careful with the protocol,” he said. “You’ve got to get it down right, and you’ve got to have the demand and you have to have the people to accept it.”
At a Walmart in Beijing, Yu Xiaoli, a 30-year-old housewife shopping for her monthly supply of rice, chose Chinese rice to the Thai alternative. She said she doesn’t choose based on price, but prefers Chinese rice for its flavor and texture.
Asked if she might be interested in trying American rice, Yu looked surprised.
“I’ve never tried it,” Yu said. “I haven’t even heard anything about it.” (end)
Associated Press writer Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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