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Published:April 27th, 2008 10:26 EST
Panic Mounts as Stores Ration Rice

Panic Mounts as Stores Ration Rice

By Krzys Wasilewski

WASHINGTON, DC. Panic swept the country when several newspapers informed that two of America`s largest retailers, Wal Mart and Costco, began rationing rice, flour, and other staple products in the anticipation of the world food crisis.

So far the rationing policy has been introduced to the supermarkets located on the west coast, as well as in a number of places in New England (including New York). Surprised shoppers are often refused more than one sack of rice even though it was in abundance only two weeks ago. Some retailers, such as Costco in California, inform their clients that [d]ue to the limited availability of rice, we are limiting rice purchases based on your prior purchasing history. "

Similar steps have been taken by Wal Mart. According to the Australian newspaper, Sam`s Club, a warehouse chain controlled by Wal Mart, allows its customers to buy up to four big bags of rice per visit. However, as the newspaper learned from the retailer`s representative, further restrictions are not excluded if the shortages of rice keep mounting. We are working with our suppliers to address this matter to ensure we are in stock, and we are asking for our members` co-operation and patience, " the Sam`s Club spokeswoman told the Australian on April 25.

The world food crisis is nothing new. The New York Times informed about the shortages of rice in Asia and Africa as early as in March, forecasting that other regions might be hit afterward. Although the price of rice has doubled on the world market since last year, most rice producers have significantly reduced the amount of the staple intended for export. Vietnam has cut rice exports by a quarter; India and Egypt have introduced a total ban on the export of rice for at least six months. The suit was followed by Cambodia, the world largest rice producer.

Among many reasons behind the world crisis, the chief one is ecology. Contrary to popular belief, the recent couple of years have been very successful for farmers around the world, with bumper harvests of rice, corn, and wheat. But as more and more countries introduce natural ingredients to fuel " such as linen essence " fewer fields are left for the production of food. It is not only easier to grow linen or algae, but also more profitable. Many fear that rice plantations will soon give way to farms with products geared toward ecology-driven rich European countries.

Some 30 percent of the rice consumed by Americans is imported, says the United States Rice Producers Association. With fewer countries able to export their stockpiles, the increase of the rice price is inevitable. Comparing figures from 2007 with the present ones, an average bag of rice in Sam`s Club or Costco stores now costs eight percent more than during the same period of time last year. The situation is additionally complicated by the fact that the U.S. is also a rice exporter. Contrary to Vietnam or Cambodia, however, the American federal government has little room for maneuver as any effort to influence the national market might infringe the principles of capitalist economy.

For the current shortages in rice in the United States, some economists blame small restaurants that are buying the staple in large quantities to avoid higher prices in the future. But it does not explain why the country`s largest retailers have introduced food rationing. Experts from the affected states remind that even though California has been hit by many calamities before, stores have hardly ever resorted to such drastic steps. This is unprecedented. Americans, particularly in states such as California, have on occasion walked into a supermarket after a natural disaster and seen the shelves are less full than usual, but we have never experienced this, " said Tim Johnson of the California Rice Commission.

Along with rice, Americans buy flour, pasta, water, and other things necessary to survive in harsh conditions. Within hours since the first reports of food sanctioning appeared on the Internet, stores with first aid kits and basic tools emptied, with sellers speaking of the same type of panic that often hit the United States during the Cold War. Still, the situation in California and other states is satisfactory in comparison with such places like Haiti or much of Africa, where food shortages have sparked violent demonstrations.

But America is not poor Asia, remind economists. Although there is less rice on the world market, the United States has enough money to buy the necessary quantities. Prices of food will certainly go up, but so has the price of gas and the portended economic disaster has not materialized. The lack of one product creates demand for another. In other words, instead of sushi and rice, more Americans will order a cheeseburger with fries.

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