The rice is right: How a staple becomes a luxury

If you've kept a close eye on the news over the past couple of months, you might have noticed a disturbing trend. Around the world, climatologists and other analysts have been making dire predictions about a dawning rice shortage.

More recently, the shortage seems to have arrived, with prices rising steeply in Kenya, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and throughout the rest of the World. In fact, this problem has even found its way into neighborhood supermarkets in the U.S., where the price of a bag of rice has almost doubled over the past year. One analyst has noted that the price of rice is poised to double again over the next few months. This price explosion has caused some consumers to panic, leading to a run on rice stocks at some stores. Sam's Club and Costco, for example, have recently announced that customers can only buy four 20-pound bags of rice at a time.

Admittedly, this isn't really a major issue for most people in the United States. To begin with, the domestic rice crop is strong, which means that there's plenty of rice out there for Americans. Consumers will have to pay more, which means that some rice lovers might have to cut back or switch to another starch, like potatoes. Fans of specialty rices, like basmati and jasmine, may well find themselves out of luck, as these strains seem to be particularly problematic. However, having to eat long-grain and medium-grain, domestically-produced rice is not that much of a hardship for most people.

Overseas, however, this is a huge issue. For much of the world, rice is a dietary staple, and several countries restrict rice imports as a means of controlling their domestic prices. The shortage has already led to rice hoarding in Sri Lanka and food riots in Haiti, where they caused the fall of the government. Increases in the prices of other staples, like wheat, corn, and soybeans, have also led to recent food riots around the world, and it seems likely that a rice shortage will only intensify that trend.

There are numerous theories about the reason for the current rice shortage. Some analysts claim that rice speculation on Wall Street is driving up prices, while others blame population growth in China and India, where more people are entering the middle class and can now afford to eat. Other reasons include rising costs of fertilizer and gas, over-development, and over-dependence on the crop. Regardless of the actual cause, it seems likely that rice will be quite pricey for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for you? Well, if you are addicted to rice, it's going to be tough, and if you love basmati, jasmine, or other specialty rices, it would probably be wise to load up now. Even if you only have an occasional rice splurge, this would be a good time to try out some alternative starches, like buckwheat noodles, potatoes, bulghur, groats, and millet. If you have some money to invest, you might want to look at buying rice contracts, as they have been massively increasing in value.

While you're at it, you might want to bring a broom and a dustpan to the next wedding you attend.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He likes Mexican food, so as long as the tortilla crop is okay, he's in business.
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