The newest thing to be frightened about: food shortages. Dutifully and frequently reported as the new television ratings period begins, rice rationing is big news.
But is there really a shortage here in America, or is it just the scare of the month? The answer is half common sense, half prediction.
Background facts: The largest rice producers in the world are Vietnam, India and Thailand; all had bumper crops of rice this growing season. There certainly is rice. But prices have rocketed upward; many of the world's poorest people can no longer afford this basic staple. There have been food riots in impoverished countries like Haiti and some parts of Africa. But in America, where rice is grown throughout the Mississippi Delta and northern California, rice is plentiful and affordable.
Common sense: the "rationing" by Sam's Club and Costco applied only to 20 pound bags of rice. Customers could purchase as many five or ten pound bags as they wished. But picture these 20 pound bags; large enough to take up considerable shelf space and needing extra per-bag labor to move from the loading dock to the warehouse to the shelves. Most people buy smaller sizes, so stores stock more of those than the 20 pound bags. When the story of foreign rice 'shortages' became news, Americans began buying up the lesser-stocked 20 pounders. Then two major chains limited the number people could purchase, and the panic was on.
The main reason for rationing was for the box store's convenience, so that there wouldn't be empty shelves or extra labor costs for unscheduled restocking. Even if a run on rice emptied shelves one day, they were restocked by the next. There is not, and never was, a rice shortage. But there will be. There most certainly will be.
The environment is a factor in all food crops; but especially with rice. It is a grain that is grown in water. That's why rice production has almost stopped in Australia. That country is entering its seventh year of record-setting severe drought. There is not enough water in Australia to grow rice.
At the same time, the world's population increases annually. There are more rice eaters every year. The U. S. Department of Agriculture predicts that the global demand for rice will increase by one percent each year. But there are also more people to drink the planet's water, and the water on earth is finite; we can't make more of it.
Rice is also a heavy user of fertilizer, so much that until recently, in rural parts of Asia, human poop was used to fertilize the watery rice paddies. The cost of modern fertilizer has doubled in the past four years. The cost of soil analysis, required because it lets the farmer know how much fertilizer to use, has gone up 10 percent in the last year. There is the increased price of the gasoline used to run tractors and other agricultural machines; meaning that production costs have skyrocketed for farmers, who have no choice but to pass it on to buyers, and so prices continue to climb. Some can no longer afford to buy it. Rice is a perfect storm of every environmental factor threatening the world's food supply.
Ingenuity can't trump environmental limitations. The increasing number of people need places to live; everyone wants their house and yard and street, the only empty land is wilderness or farms. More houses on farmland means less space to grow food. More mouths to drink water means less irrigation for food. It is a series of problems the human race is going to have to solve, but I'll be dammed if there is any obvious solution.
Wina Sturgeon, Editor