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The Jasmine Rice Campaign: Know Your Rights. Know Your Rice

The Jasmine Rice Campaign: Know Your Rights. Know Your Rice
National speaker tour
April 15-30, 2003

by Laura Millay

(Sunday, March 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Living and learning as a foreigner in Northeastern Thailand, it’s unavoidable to realize the cultural significance, meaning, and way of life surrounding the cultivation of rice. The seasons, holidays, and traditions all revolve around this sacred local wisdom. The word to ‘eat’ even implies to ‘eat rice’. Being welcomed into their homes to eat with them, it is hard to hear about the hardships they will face as a result of decisions coming from the Global North. This realization forces us, as those from the Global North, to evaluate what role we may play in changing the tide of development that can force those trying to live sustainably out of their livelihoods.

What is Jasmine rice?

Jasmine rice is one of the most sought after strains of rice in the world and known internationally for its fragrance and texture. It is grown by over 5 million families in Thailand, many of whom are in debt and very poor. In 1999 the average income of farming households was 26,822 baht ($600), significantly lower than the average household earning of 78,875 baht (about $1800). In recent years, the export market for Jasmine rice has been threatened by the biotech industry as well as misleading labeling practices by companies in America. If small-scale farmers in Thailand lose the markets for Jasmine rice---in particular its main buyer, the US--then the viability of their livelihood will be threatened in the future. While Jasmine rice accounts for about 25 percent of Thailand’s overall yearly rice export, it makes up more than 90 percent of the Thai rice that reaches America each year. In 2000, Thailand exported 243,000 tons of rice to the US, 200,000 tons of which was Jasmine rice.

The producers of Jasmine rice are often at risk from the market fluctuations. Yet the growth in demand for rice over the past decades has kept the Jasmine market relatively stable and reliable until recently. Presently, Thai Jasmine farmers continue to confront falling rice prices and an accumulated debt of over 300 billion baht (about US $7 billion). Simultaneously, two other powerful forces threaten to devastate their lives and communities: the biotech research on Jasmine rice in the US and the inability of consumers to protect their rights due to corporate labeling privileges.

Biotech Industry

An American scientist, Chris Deren, a professor at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has been conducting genetic research on Jasmine rice. Deren has claimed to obtain a seed from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1995. After obtaining the seed, Deren genetically mutated the rice with gamma rays to make the plant mature earlier and grow shorter. Both qualities are necessary for making the rice more suitable to the American climate and for the US preference for mechanical harvesting. The research is being subsidized by the USDA’s Dale Bumper’s National Rice Research Center and is being tested in Florida. Deren’s research poses a serious threat to farmers in Thailand. Currently regular varieties of American rice sell at $340 US per ton, while Jasmine rice from Thailand sells at $520 US per ton, a difference of 44 percent. In 2001 Thai Jasmine rice sales in the US translated to about $120 million. If this $120 million market diminished then it would have a drastic effect on the Thai rice export, which would hit Thai farmers the hardest.

Misleading Labeling Practices

In the United States, companies are selling US rice they have falsely labeled as Thai Jasmine rice. Current US policy allows for virtually any aromatic rice to be labeled as Jasmine. The Texas company, Rice Tec, for example, sells US grown rice as "Jasmati", the "American Jasmine". The rice is in fact Della rice, an American derivative of Italian Bertone rice and does not actually contain Jasmine rice. In addition, current US rice standards allow companies to use the term "Jasmine" as a generic term that can apply to rice grown anywhere.

Petitions have been filed by Indian organizations to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) expressing concern over the USDA’s claim that ‘Jasmine’ and ‘Basmati’ are generic and that the FTC allows deceptive labeling. In turn, the Thai government filed a petition in 2001 specifically regarding Jasmine rice. They received a response in October 2002 which stated: 1. The FTC has more concern for American consumers (than producers); 2. This case does not have, what they deem, significant material damage; and 3. They made reference to the USDA classification of Jasmine as generic aromatic rice. The FTC stated that with these three things in mind, they would not proceed with the investigation. The Thai government is currently planning their next approach.

In May 2001, the US Federal Trade Commission ruled that the name "Jasmine" was generic and it therefore referred to no product or region in particular. This allows any rice deemed to be "aromatic" and of a certain texture to be called "Jasmine", even if there is no genetic link between it and Thai Jasmine rice. The FTC ruling allows misleading labeling practices to continue. Products such as "Jasmati" attract consumers who believe they are getting a Jasmine rice product, normally associated with Thailand when in fact it contains no Jasmine rice. An American strain of Jasmine rice under the control of large agro-industrial companies would greatly undercut that market, striking against small-scale farmers in Thailand who are struggling for survival.

The Right to Know

In order to raise consumer awareness and address this problem the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a network of past study-abroad students, is launching a campaign to educate people about Jasmine rice. ENGAGE believes that consumers have a right to know what they are eating, where it comes from, and the stories behind their food. Deceptive corporate practices infringe on consumers’ right to know; but for small-scale Jasmine rice farmers, these practices can be utterly devastating.

The campaign aims to connect people and inspire them to work together to create a more equitable and fair arrangement between consumers and producers. In addition, ENGAGE believes that consumers have the right to make informed choices about the origin of their food and are being withheld vital information by the American government. Furthermore, ENGAGE hopes to link Thai farmers with groups and NGOs working on these issues with American groups and international groups for work on additional joint actions.

Objectives of the Jasmine Rice Campaign:

  • Develop a speaker tour bringing Thai farmers and representatives of Thai organizations to the United States to raise consumer awareness and to meet with American groups interested in building future working relationships through the Jasmine Rice Campaign

  • Generate awareness among American consumers and local organizations on the following issues:
  • Their rights to make informed consumption choices and the failure of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to adequately protect those rights
  • Jasmine rice farming in Thailand, and specifically the importance of rice in the lives of Thai people, hardships faced by Thai farmers including debt and dependence on fluctuating international markets, the impact of American consumer choice on the lives and livelihoods of Thai farmers, the impact of mono-cropping and the Green Revolution on Thai farmers, and the Alternative Agriculture Network’s (See description below) movement toward sustainable agriculture and small-scale farming as a solution to these hardships
  • The threat of GMOs to the livelihoods of farmers
  • The role of large agro-chemical corporations in perpetuating farmers’ poverty
  • Unfair trade policies and their impact on Thai farmers’ livelihoods; specifically, provisions in the WTO-TRIPS agreement that allow ago-corporations to steal crops and markets from small-scale producers in developing countries. This includes trade agreements on patenting of plant and genetically modified species, and registering of trademarks
  • The impact of US Department of Agriculture regulations that designate "Jasmine" as a generic term, thereby allowing American companies to market non-Thai rice as if it were authentic Jasmine rice, despite the geographical origin, heritage, and significance of the Jasmine rice in Thai society.

  • Call on the FTC to promote consumer rights by contesting the designation of "Jasmine" as a generic term
  • Create a Fair Trade Network between Thailand and the States to link consumers with producers
  • Build relationships with local American organizations, the Thai groups, international groups, and ENGAGE to continue efforts to promote fair trade and global food security

Who is ENGAGE?

The Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange is an organization that seeks to involve people in cross-cultural communication resulting in grassroots action that works toward global social justice. Through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program, ENGAGE was formed and driven by study-abroad students in Thailand involved in social conscious programs, ENGAGE actively works for social change on the local and global level.

Employing the passion of students, ENGAGE seeks to facilitate a global and grassroots understanding of the notion that long-term solutions come from connecting individuals, local communities, and organizations with other groups around the world to build solidarity and work effectively for change.

We invite you to join with us and Thai farmers in our fight to protect rice, protect livelihoods, protect our rights as humans to conscious decisions, and to protect a way of life and culture. Only when we join together can we build the power to choose the lives we want to live.

For more information on the Jasmine rice issue or how you can get involved contact:

Laura Millay
> US National Coordinator

Jasmine Rice Campaign: Know Your Rights. Know Your Rice
National Speaker Tour
April 15-30

  • Mr. Bamrung Kayuta is a Jasmine rice farmer, a leader in the Assembly of the Poor people’s movement in Thailand and the South-East representative for Via Campesina, the international peasants’ movement. He has spoken at the United Nations as a representative of poor people’s issues in developing countries.

  • Mr. Ubon Yuwa is a regional representative from the Alternative Agriculture Network, working directly with Thai farmers to promote sustainable agriculture, reduce use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and prevent exploitation of farmers by governments, corporations, and trade regulations.

  • Ms. Chalida Maneepakorn works with the Student Federation of Isaan to organize socially-active college students on issues such as the Pak Mun dam, potash mining, and promotion of sustainable agriculture. She is currently working closely with ENGAGE-Thailand to build Thai student involvement in the Alternative Agriculture Network and the Jasmine Rice Campaign.

Topic: We are looking to find ways for American and Thai groups to collaborate in addressing issues of unfair trade and the threat of large agro-business and GMO’s to small-scale farmers world-wide. Talks will be focused around the Jasmine rice issue, the American designation of "Jasmine" as a generic term, causes for this designation, trade implications, and possible solutions. Also, genetic modification and the theft of indigenous plants by corporations. The speakers will be seeking organizations interested in helping to set up a Fair Trade Network between Thai farmers and American communities. In addition, they will be discussing common problems between American and Thai small-scale farmers under the WTO, and possible alternatives and solutions.

Program: We envision the main event of a typical program to be a round-table discussion between members of interested local organizations and the Thai delegation, to discuss common issues and ideas for possible future exchange or collaboration. This event will often be preceded by a public discussion, talk, or slideshow and a question-and-answer session. The Thai delegation would also like to visit local farms and farmers markets, to gain an understanding of American farmers’ organizations, methods of farming, and issues. Other events might include: discussions in classrooms, participation in conferences, workshops, or panel discussions with other farmers or organizers, and cultural events.

Funding: We are asking, where possible, for help with funding the tour including food, lodging, travel expenses, and an honorarium. Please let us know if you are able to help or have suggestions for where we can find local funding.

Description of the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN)

The Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) of Thailand grew during the early 1990s in response to problems of debt and soil depletion that farmers were experiencing with green revolution technologies. Small-scale farmers increasingly began to organize together in attempt to solve the problems created by monocropping and heavy chemical use advocated by the government and international development community. The AAN began to promote integrated farming, organic farming, natural farming, agro-foresty, and self-sufficient farming as solutions to the problems farmers were facing. Throughout the 1990s more and more farmers joined the network and today there are over 5,000 farmers in the network practicing different types of alternative agriculture.

TheAAN promotes self-sufficiency for small-scale farmers and communities through a number of activities including: sharing different farming techniques, sharing local seed varieties, developing community markets and cooperatives, advocacy work and campaign work to affect government policy, coordinating rural community building through festivals and celebrations, and solidarity work with other grassroots popular movements. Two years ago the network began a pilot project to encourage and support farmers in their effort to move away from conventional farming techniques towards more sustainable alternatives.

The AAN has built a network of relationships with different like-minded farmers groups throughout Asia and Latin America, and is seeking to build relationships with North American farmers groups.