CHICAGO U.S. rice futures soared over 3 percent to record peaks on Thursday for the third consecutive day and most contracts locked up the 75 cent per hundredweight trading limit, traders said.
Rice for May delivery reached a record $23.30 per hundred pounds, a massive 127 percent gain from a year ago for a spot futures contract and up 64 percent since the start of 2008.
Aggressive Asian demand for rice, big export sales of U.S. rice stocks and global unrest about shrinking food grain supplies kept sellers away from the rice market.
"Rice is out of control, everybody is worried about food and food prices now," a Chicago Board of Trade floor trader said.
The U.S. Agriculture Department on Thursday said export sales of U.S. rice last week hit a five-month high and nearly half of the sales were earmarked for the Philippines, the world's top importer.
Rice supply has become a major political issue in the Philippines, where President Gloria Arroyo fears hungry voters would take to the streets if rice shortages were to emerge.
"The situation with tight supplies worldwide is a problem because it's a main staple of many people around the world, so we're continuing to see the focus on food shortages," said Shawn McCambridge, analyst for Prudential Securities.
Consuming countries are scrambling for supplies and major suppliers keep clamping down on exports.
"The turmoil and economic concerns that it's causing is keeping not only fundamental support from the tight supplies, but keeping investment money in there also," McCambridge said.
Indonesia on Tuesday became the latest to impose controls on rice exports, joining India, Egypt and Vietnam, the world's second-largest exporter, which has clamped down on new export contracts.
"There's been a popular misconception that the world can produce as much food as it likes. Well, it obviously can't. And Asia can't feed itself at the moment," Gerry Lawson, chairman of major Australian rice producer Sunrice, told Reuters.
The global turmoil is such that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday said the United States hopes to announce fresh steps in the coming weeks to help alleviate food shortages around the globe.
"The rapid rise in global food prices is an urgent concern," she said.
U.S. corn prices also climbed to a record of $6.47 per bushel in the July 2009 contract as investors grew cautious about slow U.S. corn plantings due to wet weather.
"It's still early in the season but it's enough of a concern and enough of a wet pattern that it's going to keep sellers from being very aggressive," McCambridge said.
Wheat and soybean futures gained early in the U.S. trading session but sagged on profit-taking in continued volatile see-saw trading.
Forecasts for a cold-snap next week in Kansas, the biggest U.S. winter wheat producing state, was worrying traders while the soybean market dealt with labor unrest in Argentina that was leading to concerns about a slowdown in soy exports from that country, the world's third largest soy exporter.
During the first 90 minutes of trading, all Chicago markets had turned lower on profit-taking, with the exception of rice.
May delivery wheat WK8 was around 8 cents lower and trading at just over $9.15 per bushel, May corn was down 3 cents at about $6.00 and May soy fell nearly 10 cents a bushel to just over $13.35 per bushel.
(Additional reporting by Michael Byrnes in Sydney and Sybille de La Hamaide in London; Editing by Marguerita Choy)