US RETAIL giant Wal-Mart is rationing rice sales to protect dwindling supplies as the global price skyrockets and producers such as Australia struggle to keep up with demand.

The drastic move is the first time that food rationing has been introduced in the US.

Growing appetites in China and India, drought in Australia and pests in Vietnam have contributed to the rice shortage and soaring prices.

Hoarding by Asian farmers and rice dealers has sparked clampdowns by authorities there who are worried about getting subsidised rice to the poor.

While Americans suffered some rationing during World War II for items such as petrol, light bulbs and stockings, they have never had to limit consumption of a key food item …

… Wal-Mart said that Sam’s Club, its wholesale business, which sells food to restaurants and other retailers, had limited each customer to four bags of long-grain white rice per visit.

In the past three months wholesalers have experienced a sharp rise in demand for food items such as wheat, rice and milk as businesses stocked up to protect themselves against rising prices.

Global rice prices have more than doubled in the past year partly because countries such as China and India — whose economies are booming — are buying more food from abroad.

At the same time, key rice producers banned exports of rice to ensure that their own people could continue to afford to buy the staple: India, China, Vietnam and Egypt have all blocked exports and so demand for rice from countries such as the US has increased.

Costco Wholesale, the largest warehouse operator in the US, said this week that demand for rice and flour had risen, with customers panicking about shortages and hoarded produce.

Tim Johnson, of the California Rice Commission, said: “This is unprecedented. Americans — particularly in states such as California — have on occasion walked into a supermarket after a natural disaster and seen that the shelves are less full than usual, but we have never experienced this.”

Food prices across the world have rocketed in the past two years, driven by increased demand for corn — the grain that is fermented to produce ethanol, the biofuel. With corn a main foodstock in dairy farming, milk has doubled in price in two years.

Full article here.