Can Thailand's latest 'superfood' fortify its struggling farmers?

Can Thailand's latest 'superfood' fortify its struggling farmers?

New organic rice variety changes agricultural methods and ingrained attitudes

DENIS D. GRAY, Contributing writer
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Riceberry's distinctive purplish color, fine taste and healthful properties has made it popular among those who now prefer to eat organic rice. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)


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.

The shelves of high-end stores, like this one at a Rimping Supermarket in Chiang Mai, are increasingly stocked with large selections of high-quality organic rice. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)


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. 

     Chomchuan Boonrahong, left, a professor, farmer and adviser to the Thai government on organic agriculture, offers advice to a villager in the northern province of Chiang Mai, a hub of Thailand's organic movement. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

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.


A farmer north of Chiang Mai spreads liquid fertilizer over a field to be planted with riceberry, which he will export to China. He hopes the switch from conventional white rice will boost his income. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)


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.




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The Thailand Center of Excellence on Rice Precision Breeding for Food Security, Quality and Nutrition
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