Can Thailand's latest 'superfood' fortify its struggling farmers?
New organic rice variety changes agricultural methods and ingrained attitudes
DENIS D. GRAY, Contributing writer
CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- Riceberry, Thailand's latest "superfood," would seem to have it all: An enticing deep purple color and tender texture; disease-fighting properties from antioxidants to zinc; and a nutty flavor that lingers pleasantly on the palette. It is one of several high quality, organically grown rice varieties that are slowly eating into the dominance of the less healthy, polished white rice favored by most Asians.
Experts and cultivators contend that newcomers like riceberry can also help to alleviate the crushing debt, threadbare income and numerous other woes facing the small farmers who still make up the overwhelming majority of Thailand's agricultural sector.
Production of organic food, particularly rice, has grown at an annual average of 8% in the country over the past five years, with more than 13,150 farms engaged in the practice in 2015, according to Vitoon Panyakul, head of the nationwide Green Net Cooperative, a social enterprise which works to link sustainable farmers with consumers.
Although the new rice varieties have hardly become a staple of Thai meals, more consumers are becoming wary of produce which in recent decades has been increasingly soaked in pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers. Alternative varieties include some 10 nutritious organic rice strains, with riceberry -- a cross-breed of jao hom nin (non-glutinous black rice) and dawk mali (jasmine or fragrant rice) -- perhaps emerging as the trendiest.
Growing organic rice is far from easy -- while it has lower input costs in terms of items like fertilizer, and a higher market price, it is also more labor intensive and initially provides lower yields. But, with mounting domestic as well as international demand for these niche varieties, farmers who grow them correctly are reaping rewards which may make the difference between future survival on their land and having to sell up and leave.
"If you have five rai (80% of a hectare) of land in organic rice, you can send your children to university," says Chomchuan Boonrahong, a professor at Chiang Mai's Mae Jo University and himself a farmer of organic rice, chickens and fish. Varieties like riceberry, developed by Bangkok's Kasetsart University in 2012, sell for about double the price of conventional white rice in stores -- although profits to farmers are generally not as high and can fluctuate widely given the many variables involved in their growth.
Vitoon estimates that farmers who switch to organic generally boost their income by 10% to 15%, although late last year Green Net purchased organic rice from its more than 750 members at 40% above the price of standard non-organic varieties. The downside, of course, is higher prices for consumers.
"Poor people just want to be fed. They don't have extra cash and they don't think of the consequences of not eating organic food 35 years down the line," says David Dawe, an expert on rice in Asia at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. "But as Asians get richer they can afford it and they care more about health issues. So increasingly it is becoming big business. It's got a lot of potential everywhere in the region."
For small farmers, much depends on how they can overcome challenges, from bypassing sometimes rapacious middlemen to gain direct market access, to pursuing innovative supplementary sources of income on their small holdings.
One recent case study by ECHO, the U.S.-based global information network for small and poor farmers, illustrates how success can be achieved. After some trial and error, Fah Mui, a farmer in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, began to register excellent results by following the System of Rice Intensification, a labor-intensive, low-water method of increasing yield, combined with organic practices like using what is called "fermented herb juice" to ward off insects and water-level management to control weeds, crabs and snails.
She mills and packs her own rice and uses a website and social network Facebook for direct marketing. From her brown rice, she also produces gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) powder, popularly used as a calming or sedative supplement. There are several other profitable rice by-products including a cereal drink and cookies, and there is even a beer called "Cheers" made from riceberry.
Fah Mui's brown paddy rice sold for $4,000 a ton in Bangkok in 2015, compared to between $266 and $433 per ton of non-organic paddy rice. Her GABA fetched as much as $10,000 a ton.
Fah Mui's path to profit is one advocated by experts like Chomchuan, who encourages rice farmers, especially younger ones he hopes will stay on the land rather than seek jobs in cities, to control every stage from growing to processing to marketing, while also diversifying into other crops or agro-businesses. Much of this, he says, is best done through cooperatives or other associations which can also provide the technical know-how needed to find the right formula for organic rice growing.
Some who opt to go organic become so enthusiastic they sound like religious converts. Charoen Yokhamchu, whose farm lies north of Chiang Mai, believes it also saved his life, convinced that his earlier immersion in chemicals caused a stroke which left him temporarily paralyzed. Now 65 and with a renewed vigor, he says just one-third of a hectare provides enough rice each year for his family of nine. But his main income stems from producing high-quality organic fertilizer.
"You can't put a price on good health. We are trying to spread the word. Trying, but it is difficult," he says, noting that his own son, an oil engineer, will not follow in his footsteps.
Advocates hope the benefits -- and perhaps mystique -- of the organic movement will induce the coming generation of farmers to remain on the land. The Thai government is likewise hopeful, laying out its second National Organic Agriculture Development Strategy in April. The Ministry of Agriculture hopes its support will see more than 162,000 hectares of land dedicated to organic rice production by 2021.
But a wider challenge facing all small farmers in Thailand's rural communities is the continuing exodus to the city. The Thai Development Research Institute found that those aged 54 and older make up by far the largest age group among farmers, while those between 15 and 24 are all but absent from rural areas.
From debt woes to 'rice resorts'
Another worry is that free trade between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and with China may flood the Thai market with cheaper produce than the local organic output. Then there is the ubiquitous scourge of rising household debt in the countryside.
"Many farmers can't reboot to organic because they are burdened with debt. They don't have the ready cash needed to begin organic farming even if down the road they will get bigger returns," notes Thomas Jefferson Rutherford, a sustainable agriculture specialist.
One might not readily discern such problems in and around Chiang Mai, arguably Thailand's organic capital, although organic rice is also concentrated in other northern and northeastern provinces.
The city and its environs host about 20 local organic markets, more chemically-free produce is generally found on its supermarket shelves than in Bangkok and Mae Jo University has declared itself Thailand's "First Organic Agriculture University." There are even "rice resorts" like Mala Dhara, where owner Kingploy Issarajan teaches guests yoga and takes them to her riceberry fields where buffaloes fertilize the crop and ducks snack on predatory "cherry snails." "Rice is my passion," she explains.
Some 100 vendors gather twice weekly for an organic market on the Mae Jo University campus. A lively atmosphere pervades, and many of the farmers come dressed in traditional attire.
"I'm around chemicals a lot so I hope organic food may offset some of the harm," said Pradudnet Ketwong, a doctorate candidate in applied chemistry, as she purchased a kilogram of organic rice from a farmer residing just down the road. "It may be a bit more expensive but many of my friends also shop organic."