Thai Rice Farmers Get Help
An innovative new relationship between rice farmers in Thailand and Thai immigrants in Southern California could create a new model for sustaining the Thai rice industry and expanding the consumer base for fair trade products, according to a recent report from the Migration Policy and Resource Center at Occidental College.
Using the economic clout of the Los Angeles-based Thai Community Development Center (CDC) to build new markets for fair trade jasmine rice could have a significant impact on Thai farmers, now struggling with falling prices, increased costs, and heightened global competition, the report says.
“Fair trade jasmine rice has the potential to simultaneously address trade issues affecting Thai farmers, expand the fair trade movement, link sustainable development efforts across international borders, and ultimately reduce incentives for rural Thais to emigrate,” says Ellen Roggemann ‘05, author of the report.
Life revolves round rice in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter – more than 22 billion pounds in 2004 – and a country where the phrase, “Let’s eat” literally translates as “Eat rice.” Unique to Thailand is jasmine rice, the sweet-smelling and soft variety much sought after by gourmands in Europe and the United States.
But rice prices have been declining since 1997, and Thai farmers – who make up about half of the Thai labor force – increasingly find themselves deeply in debt, in part a result of their dependence on costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides introduced by the Green Revolution movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, more are seeking work in cities or emigrating overseas, the report says.
The fate of farmers in places like Thailand also is one of the issues at the heart of global trade talks launched in 2001 under the aegis of the World Trade Organization, as well as Free Trade Agreement negotiations between Thailand and the United States. Developing countries have been battling to eliminate agricultural subsidies, arguing heavily subsidized U.S. products hurt their ability to compete by depressing global commodity prices through the dumping of cheap products on world markets.
Thailand’s jasmine rice farmers have been especially disadvantaged by trade rules that allow U.S. companies to sell rice under the name “Jasmine” and encourage the development and patenting of genetically modified versions of Jasmine rice that can be grown in the United States, the report notes.
To counter these trends, Thai farmers have begun to explore the use of fair trade networks, which are perhaps best known in the coffee industry. Fair trade networks make possible direct relationships between farmer and consumer, ensuring a higher price for farmers by cutting out expensive middlemen.
Building on existing small-scale networks selling jasmine rice in Europe and the United States, Roggemann proposes to take advantage of the fact that ethnic Asians are the main consumers of jasmine rice and develop a partnership with the Thai CDC, the largest Thai community-based organization in the United States.
Unique in its focus on economic development projects, the Thai CDC’s small business program could help development new markets for jasmine rice among Los Angeles-based Thai entrepreneurs. The Thai CDC itself is interested in becoming an importer of fair trade rice to generate revenue for its affordable housing and other programs, the report says. More than 50,000 Thai-Americans live in Southern California, the largest such population outside Thailand.
“The expansion of the fair trade rice campaign is vital to ensuring that more Thai farmers reap the benefits of this sustainable, environmentally friendly model of development and empowerment,” Roggemann says. “While the campaign employs traditional ‘niche market’ techniques, it also seeks to form unique coalitions to reach the Asian-American population and link sustainable development efforts across borders.”