Tuesday, January 13, 2015


There's really not much to mention in this update ...

All clear
For instance there's the boring news from Thailand: how is the junta trying to tackle the former government?
Bangkok Post (Dec. 19):
'The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has cleared senior Democrat Party figures of wrongdoing in connection with rice sales made in 2009 when the party led the government'. 
The Nation (Dec. 22):
'Former Deputy Commerce Minister Yanyong Phuangrach yesterday voiced doubt over results of the government's audit of the rice-pledging scheme, saying they appeared to have been gravely distorted and that granary owners and surveyors should sue the panel in charge of verifying the state stockpiles'.
The Nation (Dec. 28):
'The director of the Marketing Organisation of Farmers (MOF) has been summoned to explain to the government's newly-established National Administrative Centre against Corruption tomorrow about the disappearance of over 100,000 sacks of rice from the government stock'.
Bangkok Post (Jan. 5):
'Attempts to clear the debts incurred by the rice-pledging scheme continued on Monday with the launch of 100-billion-baht bonds by the Finance Ministry and the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperative (BAAC)...'.
Bangkok Post (Jan. 12):
'An inquiry committee set up by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to question former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra about the NLA's impeachment motion is expected to focus mainly on the losses under the rice-pledging scheme'.
Cleaning their hands already?

While rice farmers see some hope in the current Thai regime, rubber farmers remain dissatisfied (Nation, Dec. 15):
'The rubber industry will today ask the government to compensate farmers for a market price below Bt60 per kilogram after initially seeking compensation for prices below Bt80.
The news comes as the government has revealed that it believes a planned rally by rubber farmers in Phatthalung on Friday in response to falling rubber prices is not an attempt to put pressure on the government but merely an information-gathering exercise.
Domestic rubber prices range between Bt35-37 per kg compared to a peak of almost Bt180 over the past few years.
"If the rubber market price is Bt45 per kg, the government will have to compensate farmers for the Bt15 gap. If the price is Bt60 or higher, the government has no need to subsidise," said Manoon Ouppala, chairman of a network of rubber planters in Surat Thani'.
Meanwhile, pepper farmers are doing well, thank you. The Phnom Penh Post (Jan. 6): 
'The price of black pepper rose from $11 per kilogram in 2013 to $15 this year, while red pepper increased from $15 to $25 and white pepper went from $18 to $26, said Nguon Lay, president of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association.
“The total harvest is expected to be 40 tonnes, while the total cultivation area has increased from 15 to 20 hectares,” said Lay.
Lay said that a lack of supply to keep up with demand was the reason behind the surge in prices'.
Pepper farmers may be the exception to the rule. In Laos, with prices of agricultural commodities going down, agro-industries are also feeling the heat. Vientiane Times (Jan. 6) reports on cassava farming near the Lao capital.
'Pakngum district Governor Mr Vongdeuan Bounnhaseng told Vientiane Times yesterday, “Farmers here have abandoned the cultivation of cassava and are now planting rubber trees instead.”
Farmers in more than 10 districts of Vientiane and nearby provinces had been growing large areas of cassava in recent years to supply the tapioca factory in Pakngum district, which has the capacity to produce 320 tonnes per day.
But their luck ran out when the company ran up a massive debt to the bank that had given it a loan, and was unable to pay farmers for the cassava they supplied'. 
An answer may be niche marketing. In practice, Vientiane Times (Jan. 3):
'As the main producer of khao kai noi rice in Laos, Xieng Khuang province is not only eyeing up more domestic markets, but also plans to expand into foreign markets.
The province is encouraging farmers to grow more khao kai noi rice using organic methods, hoping to attract the interest of consumers in Japan and France.
According to provincial authorities, prospective purchasers from France and Japan have visited the province to look into the situation ...'.
Smelling a rat?
Achievements in growing hybrid rice are sometimes marginally better than those grown normally. So why not shift the focus elsewhere?
One of the biggest threats to rice productivity are rats. Especially in south Vietnam where rice is grown year round, rats can gobble up as much as 20% of the intended harvest. So it's no surprise that rat catching is big business.
The Bangkok Post (Dec. 19) has a very informative article on what they name Vietnam's rat king, Tran Quang Thieu. Mr. Thieu had developed his own trap with a powerful spring. the article mentions that 30 million of these traps have been sold.
'His five children have all joined the family business and between them they now run six specialised companies to trap rats.
... he's signed contracts to help hospitals, hotels, restaurants and schools to exterminate pests - even the Hanoi police headquarters.
"Once, we trapped some 300 kilos of rats in just one night at a tourist resort in Hanoi," he said proudly.
Over the last few years, the rat population has exploded in Vietnam due to a decline in the population of their natural predators - snakes and cats'.
A very interesting read on domestic ingenuity.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


The biggest news this past month for rice growing Cambodia is the fact that Cambodia's jasmine rice, or Phka Romdoul won the world's best accolade. For the third time running, so actually not so newsworthy.

As reported by the Cambodian Daily (Nov. 21). But then they add:
'But this year, the coveted title—awarded by a panel of judges at the World Rice Conference at the Sofitel Hotel in Phnom Penh—was shared with hommali fragrant rice grown in Thailand.'
And though it doesn't mean any extra sales or possible higher prices, it does increase market awareness of Khmer rice. 
Phnom Penh Post concludes much the same: 
'Sok David, vice-president of Golden Rice Cambodia, said the award has show-cased the Kingdom’s quality.
“If your [client] wants a lower price with specific quality, Cambodia can do it,” he said'.
Then the World Rice Conference itself. The Phnom Penh Post (Nov. 20):
'Giving Cambodia a makeover was the focus at the sixth World Rice Conference, which was held yesterday at Phnom Penh’s Sofitel hotel.
Minister of Commerce Sun Chanthol opened the day’s events calling for better branding of the Kingdom’s products and investment environment.
“We need to do two kinds of branding. One is to do branding on products, and another one is to do branding on our country’s image,” Chanthol explained'. 
This article clocked up a response, but possibly not one the minister would like:
'Excellency Mr Minister, the world is not illiterate or stupid. Nobody thinks Cambodia is still in KR era. But everybody knows it is a supremely corrupt country without the rule of law and without human rights. So if you are looking for a Brand and for FDI just get those things fixed and the Kingdom will shine as in the Angkor era. Respectfully, FN'.
The risoitaliano website continues it's ongoing feud with duty free rice imports into Europe. at the possible cost to Italian rice farmers. Roberto Magnaghi (Dir.-Gen. of Ente Risi) in an interview applauds recent drops in imports witnessed from Cambodia, but only to see imports from Burma  overtake  ....

Enhancing Cambodia's rice sector: China will loan cash to Cambodia for building storage capacity. The Phnom Penh Post reports (Nov. 17): 
'China is set to loan Cambodia up to $300 million to build a series of warehouses aimed at assisting the Kingdom’s fledgling rice industry.
The loan is to be used to build more than 10 warehouses equipped with dryers capable of storing at least one million tonnes of Cambodia’s paddy. The facilities will be located along key rural production areas, urban markets and ports along the country’s value chain'.
Farmers problems, according to an article in the Phnom Penh Post (Dec. 5) concerning a consultation process between farmers, ngo's and the government: 
'A lack of irrigation, rising costs of production and finding new markets to sell their produce are problems that plague Cambodian farmers, attendees at the annual National Farmers Forum were told yesterday'. 
No news there.

On a broader level, the Cambodian PM sees that lagging other nations in export compliance is a further hindrance to getting more market share. The Phnom Penh Post (Dec. 2): 
'“Some big developed countries still practise farmers’ protectionist policies as a barrier not to let our products flow into their countries,” he said, without naming any specific nations.
Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) procedures, or the rules concerning food safety, and the application of animal and plant regulations on exports were an added barrier, the prime minister said'. 
Anybody involved with importing (or even exporting) via Cambodian custom officials will also note that less fortunate nations are often hindering all foreign trade ...
Is there no news on rice-pledging? Marginal. The Bangkok Post (Dec. 12) notes that the attorney-general seems still to have insufficient evidence so as to indict former PM. Not so clear cut?

However it's mostly the rubber farmers ruffling the feathers of the junta. 

Failure by rubber producing nations to agree on cuts in rubber production have seen prices drop resulting in more pain to rubber growing nations and their farmers. Predictably those farmers in Thailand want their government to act.
The Bangkok Post  (Nov. 25) reports that about 50 farmers are decrying new proposed legislation to help rubber prices.
'The Rubber Planters Rescue Alliance, which demonstrated in defiance of martial law's ban on political gatherings, also demanded the National Legislative Assembly scrap a proposed law aimed at supporting the rubber industry. Coalition coordinator Sunthorn Rakwong claimed the bill won't boost prices because it was drafted mainly by academics, civil servants and politicians. 
"We want the national assembly to scrap the draft because small-time rubber farmers will have very little say in it and it is not a genuine support measure," said Mr Sunthorn, speaking for 14 southern  farmer groups, told Reuters. "If the national assembly does not scrap it, then rubber farmers all over the country will rise up and protest." 
The draft aims to set up a Rubber Authority of Thailand, including farmers and representatives from the public and private sector, to oversee policy and prices. But Mr Suthorn said the plan would not help all farmers, especially who grow rubber trees but don't own land, and rubber tappers'.
Looks more a class war. One of the proposed actions would be Thailand cutting trees. Now how does that look when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are still planting more ... 
The solution sought, has been to set up a rubber fund. The Nation reports (Dec. 13) on how an outlay of somewhere near 10 million $US is the answer. With rubber prices currently at just 20% of those in 2011, it seems this outlay will be do little to bring prices up. And certainly do nothing to the long term prospects: more and more rubber is coming onto the market while demand is slow ...

And the rubber farmers are getting restive as witnessed by them now setting an ultimatum to the junta. The Nation (Dec. 10): 
'Disgruntled rubber farmers said yesterday that they were giving the government a few more weeks to push the price of rubber up to at least Bt80 per kilogram, or they would kick off massive rallies'. 
The Bangkok Post the day before than this article notes that the minister can't afford the demanded prices!

As said it's not just Thailand struggling with low rubber prices. The Cambodian Daily (Nov. 27) sees more strangeness: 
'And while Cambodia’s natural rubber export tariffs are set at between 2 and 10 percent, Vietnam has moved to ease the impact on its rubber farmers, slashing export taxes from 5 to 1 percent last December before removing tariffs altogether on October 2'. 
With larger amounts disappearing into the apparent illicit trade to Vietnam, rubber factories in Cambodia are caught. Unable to meet prices offered in the trade to Vietnam, they can go higher only to see them stuck with produce taxed higher than that of neighbours and thus unsalable ....

And in the Vientiane Times of November 6 farmers from the northern province of Phongsaly are hoping that authorities will help them out with selling their rubber. The answer: 
'The provincial authorities asked all the relevant companies to assist the people in their district and proposed the government consider implementing suitable policies for the companies'.
Now how will these lessons translate once rice prices drop. Or fail to rise in the coming years?
Further afield, in Nepal after the showing of the film the Seed Wars, there's discussion on how far companies can be allowed to possess seed patents and therefore the future of farming. The discussion was published in the Nepali Times (14-20 November). Besides this article there is also an opinionated article in the same Times, which promotes the use of GMO, but favours curtailing the power of companies. 
There is quite a lot of reaction to this point of view to suggest that the author may well be barking up the wrong GMO tree ...
Outside of Asia, there is quite some focus on an article on the healthyhomeeconomist website (Nov. 13), a brainstorming process which starts off with non-scientifically trying to link wheat consumption in the US with food allergies. It notices that this doesn't always take place, has it got to do with GMO's? Hybrids? The article then links the practice of drenching wheat with Roundup just before harvest, to gain a few % more yield, a common practice in the US.

On alternet (Dec. 4) the arguments are laid to rest. If Roundup were the cause then we would see much more intolerance of say soy or corn. It's not so says the article's author Jill Richardson. 
Of course most of the comments oppose this. Two counter arguments: Roundup is highly soluble. Only with wheat is it used shortly before harvest with no moist to either dilute or wash off the herbicide. The other is that setting up experiments to link the two might take decades: maybe it's better to err on the safe side ...

Back in Asia, but yet again off-topic
Vientiane Times (Nov. 21) reports on cardamom in the northern province of Phongsaly. In what seems an anomaly for state officials there seems to be problems with prices: come harvest time, prices drop only to recover once the harvests have finished and the stock sold!
'He [Deputy Governor of Khua district Mr Phonethavy Xaymonty] added that more farmers have switched from growing rice to growing cardamom which is a positive sign for reducing slash and burn cultivation'.
Finally, Hong Kong customs have raided a warehouse where counterfeit [!] rice were being packed / sold (Bangkok Post, Dec. 14), this to the detriment of trademarked Thai rice. The report fails to detail what kind of rice was being sold instead ...., possibly cheaper Thai rice?

Thursday, November 13, 2014


A couple of seemingly non-related articles once again featuring the curse of company politics forcing lab developed foods on consumers. With too many unknowns concerning the outcome. Other than lining the pockets of whom we already know (thanks to Thomas Piketty): the rich getting richer ...

It all seems innocent.
While sceptics are holding the fort in Europe, the US is still full steam ahead for GM crops. Or so it seems. The latest are potatoes. The New York Times (Nov. 7):
'A potato genetically engineered to reduce the amounts of a potentially harmful ingredient in French fries and potato chips has been approved for commercial planting, the Department of Agriculture announced on Friday.
The potato’s DNA has been altered so that less of a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people, is produced when the potato is fried.
But the approval comes as some consumers are questioning the safety of genetically engineered crops and demanding that the foods made from them be labeled. Ballot initiatives calling for labeling were rejected by voters in Oregon and Colorado this week, after food and seed companies poured millions of dollars into campaigns to defeat the measures.
Genetically modified potatoes failed once before. In the late 1990s, Monsanto began selling potatoes genetically engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle. But the market collapsed after big potato users, fearing consumer resistance, told farmers not to grow them. Simplot itself, after hearing from its fast-food chain customers, instructed its farmers to stop growing the Monsanto potatoes.
This time around could be different, however, because the potato promises at least potential health benefits to consumers. And unlike Monsanto, Simplot is a long-established power in the potato business and presumably has been clearing the way for acceptance of the product from its customers'.
All-in-all a not so positive article for GM proponents. But then again they have the approval in the bag. 

The same innocence applies to this article concerning GM eggplant in Bangladesh (CGIAR, Oct. 10):
'Any day now, a hundred Bangladeshi smallholder farmers will be planting their annual aubergine crop.  But this year this select band will not be planting their usual seeds of the crop they call brinjal and many know as the eggplant.
These family farmers, chosen by the country’s agricultural researchers, will be growing a genetically modified (GM) variety.  Bt brinjal has been developed by crop scientists in Bangladesh and neighbouring India to fight off insects that often halve yields and force farmers into daily spraying with dangerous pesticides.
For many, that is a much bigger and more immediate issue, especially with key GM technologies dominated by a handful of companies — most notably, and most notoriously, Monsanto. But do we have to translate a fear of big bad agribusiness into a fear of GMs?  Why, to put it another way, should the devil have all the best tunes?  If our main problem with the technology is who owns it, then let’s liberate it for the common good.
Yes, the technique is owned by Monsanto.  And the company got a lot of stick for initially charging high prices for Bt cotton, when it was first introduced in India two decades ago to fight bollworm.  But Monsanto doesn’t see any profits in a crop like brinjal.  Though one of South Asia’s most popular vegetables, it is mostly grown by poor smallholders.  So a decade ago, the company gave local scientists free use of the gene to put into brinjal and other local crops, such as chickpeas.
Now you might see Monsanto’s free licensing of their technology for brinjal as a Trojan Horse to get GMs into potentially big seed markets like India.  You might be right.  But surely it is also a chance to take a valuable new technology out of the hands of its rich owners and use it in the service of family farmers'.

The author also gets some stick from respondents as he seemingly avoids some of the more contentious issues. One response laid to rest our distrust of Monsanto's ulterior interests:
'You forgot to mention that Mahyco, the Indian seed company who developed Bt Brinjal is 26% owned by Monsanto?
You also forgot to mention that Mahyco Mahyco became India’s first commercial entity to be accused of bio-piracy, or misappropriation, of local germplasm'.
The author also forgot that the seemingly public good of helping farmers also has a distinct private interest: getting consumers used to GM foods. Bangladesh can hardly be an example of consumer protection. Even China, which has invested heavily on hybrid rice, will seek to avoid GM foods from being imported.

And thus we come to the rhetoric concerning Golden Rice: GM rice, again very innocently engineered to pursue a public good (higher vit. A) intake, but to opponents just the next step with which private companies will assault public consumption.

Once again IRRI, the globe's biggest rice research center for public good has given it's support to the development of Golden Rice (Oct. 30):
'“No farmer must be left behind” was the challenge addressed to 1,500 scientists and delegates, hailing from 69 countries, who are here in Bangkok to attend the 4th International Rice Congress (IRC2014).
“This call to action adds all the more to our resolve to continue the research on Golden Rice, a potential new food-based approach to help fight vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a form of hidden hunger,” said Dr. Violeta Villegas, Golden Rice project coordinator at IRRI'.
It again questions it's distracters and emphasises it's public good. 
But fails to see how the introduction of Golden Rice is paving the way for private companies to do likewise, but with the potential profit not being dedicated to a public good, but to private investors ...

Interesting in this is the blog post by Sally Brooks from June last year, referring to a UK government standpoint (hoping for more GM). She replies:
'This is not the first time that the specific case of the Golden Rice project has been deployed as the lynchpin of an argument for policy and regulatory changes to accelerate the commercialisation on GM crops in general. This is problematic for a number of reasons which I have set out in a new article
As well as bringing more heat than light to an already overheated debate, the deployment of Golden Rice as ‘poster child’ in the GM crop debate has had serious consequences for the way the research has been carried out ‘on the ground’ over the years. In research stations in Southeast Asia, the pressure cooker environment surrounding the project has not been conducive to the kind of open discussion and debate – among crop scientists, nutritionists, public health experts, and others – that an ambitious research effort such as this warrants and requires. Unfortunately, too much hype ‘upstream’ has tended to close down opportunities for open scientific enquiry and debate ‘downstream’, just where it is most needed '.
With the outcome yet to take place, debate could at least take a backseat until the pro's (and cons0 have been able to prove their case. In real terms.

No surprises
While we're on institutional nonsense let's bring ADB's most recent nonsense on Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post (Oct. 30) has an article on an ADB report:
'Cambodia's rice industry remains hindered by the size of cultivation land and an absence of domestic milling facilities as well as irrigation, according to an Asia Development Bank (ADB) report launched this week.
The ADB’s study, released Tuesday and titled Improving Rice Production and Commercialization in Cambodia, states that Cambodia’s average rice yield ranks the lowest among almost all Southeast Asian nations.
The study concludes that agricultural productivity in Cambodia would increase with strengthened land titling and skills development efforts from the Cambodian government, and improved access to finance, which in turn could prompt investment in irrigation and domestic milling.
Srey Chanthy, independent economist, said the ADB report’s findings were not surprising and represent the same issues that have been plaguing Cambodia’s rice industry for almost two decades.
“If we thought we had all the answers, then why is the issue still there? We have to ask how policy is being implemented,” Chanthy said, adding that little domestic revenue is spent on strengthening the agriculture sector.
Chanthy said improving knowledge and skills in farming should be the first priority for the Cambodian government. He called for commercial banks and microfinance institutions to increase the amount of credit available to the fledgling industry from an estimated $800 million to more than $1 billion'.
It is hardly revealing, wonder how much the study cost. It also means questioning the data itself. Thailand is a no. 1 country in export but has a very low productivity, comparable to Cambodia ....

Other rice news from Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post (Oct. 6):
'The latest rice export figures have disappointed industry representatives with a lower-than-expected increase over the first nine months.
A report from the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture published Saturday shows that from January to September, the Kingdom exported about 270,000 tonnes of rice, up 1.2 per cent from the same nine-month period last year'.
Out of touch
Phnom Penh Post (Oct. 24) with the latest on it's cassava industry:
'Cassava industry officials have brushed off concerns over an industry-wide slowdown amid the release of third-quarter export data.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Agriculture show that from January to September, Cambodia exported about 1.2 million tonnes of cassava. The third-quarter figure is equal to just 62 per cent of last year’s annual export total of more than 2 million tonnes'.
The same source (Oct. 17) has an interesting interview with Chan Sophal (an independent agriculture economist) concerning growing of vegetables. The background:
'But despite agriculture sustaining the livelihoods of the vast majority of the country, Cambodia still imports a large portion of its vegetables from neighbouring countries – Vietnam and Thailand – just to meet domestic demand.' 
One of the reasons, the interview emphasizes, is that Cambodia doesn't have the correct techniques. However much of what is imported are vegetables which can't grow in Cambodia, climatically. 
It is a strange interview as Chan Sophal seems to be out of touch with how to grow vegetables: 
'Vegetable growing is far more different and requires a new set of skills, compared to rice where you simply sow the seed and leave it there. Our farmers do not have this vegetable growing attitude as it requires so much attention and farming technique. The big issues are capital and skill. To start a commercial vegetable plantation, farmers need at least half a hectare to a hectare of land area and at least $5,000 to $10,000 to invest in irrigation systems, which reduce labour costs and ensure high yields. Only farmers with adequate capital will be able to run this kind of plantation'. 
In my experience vegetable growing is an ideal way to generate income for often resource poor farmers, simply because capital is not required, there's little risk and the market easily can absorb what's produced.

In other vegetable news we witnessed a knee-jerk reaction. Phnom Penh Post reports (Oct. 14): 
'Cambodian authorities are stepping up inspection efforts of vegetable imports along the border after Vietnamese produce shipped to the European Union was found to contain harmful bacteria, an official from the Kingdoms import inspection unit said yesterday'. 
This thinking would imply that (hygiene) standards in Vietnam are worse than in Cambodia. At the very best these standards are equal ...

Over to the rubber front which has many similarities: an important crop for many farmers and high prices disappearing. 
Let's start off with Cambodian news on rubber.

Counting the losses
The Cambodian Daily (Oct. 16) reports on Asian wide measures to shore up the rubber market:
'Representatives from Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea met in Malaysia and agreed not to sell rubber below $1,500 per ton, said Men Sopheak, secretary-general of the Association for Rubber Development in Cambodia.
The move will hopefully give those in Cambodia’s rubber industry, which has seen many producers abandon the trade of late due to shrinking profits, more incentive to continue production, he said'.
The Cambodian Daily (Nov. 8) notes that after the agreement prices rose. But for how long?

More rubbery news partially from Cambodia. But it starts in Vietnam. Apparently Vietnam's drive to business success is once again driving corruption. This time round it's the state run Vietnam Rubber Group which has lost a couple of hundred million $ in the past 5 years. Thanhniennews (Nov. 10): 
'State inspectors have recommended penalties for rampant financial mismanagement at the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group which lost nearly US$391 million over the course of six years
One major violation, according to the inspectors, was the group's significant investment in the Phu Rieng-Kratie Rubber Company which began cultivating rubber in Cambodia in 2007.
Mismanagement of the foreign subsidiary may have resulted in VND483 billion ($22.75 million) in losses, not to mention nearly $1.9 million in loans the company cannot pay back.
Much of this money was lost due to Phu Rieng-Kratie Rubber's investments in non-core businesses, the inspectors said'. 
Most though were investments outside rubber plantations which yielded nada. The Phnom Penh Post chimes in (Nov. 12):
'In 2011, VRG said it had invested $200 million in 100,000 hectares of plantations in Cambodia. Companies are legally allowed to own only 10,000 hectares in economic land concessions.
In February, Phu Rieng Kratie Co transferred 90 per cent of its shares to a Singapore-registered company called Kratie Plantations Holdings, owned by investor David Gardner [most probably website].
Gardner, who could not be reached by phone or email yesterday, is listed as director of Asian and African investments for Global Forest Partners, a multibillion-dollar US-based investment fund which has received money from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to conduct climate change mitigation programs.
In November last year, Gardner became director of the board of another VRG subsidiary with a 10,000-hectare rubber plantation in the same district.
According to a Global Witness report released last year, VRG has 161,344 hectares of rubber plantations in the Kingdom'. 
Obscuring the truth?

Over in Thailand, the Nation (Oct. 12) dedicates an article to the reverse side of the disappearing of subsidies for rubber farmers: 
'As rubber prices slump, hard-up farmers in Thailand -- the world's top producer of the commodity -- are appealing for a bailout, testing the junta's resolve to end populist policies and an entrenched subsidy culture.
With dawn creeping over his plantation in Pa Ko subdistrict of Phang Nga province, Jade Charongan said tapping his 500 trees for the once-lucrative sap yields around $130 a month.
Three years ago he earned five times that amount ...
Farmers’ groups are calling on the military government to guarantee the price at 80 baht a kilo.
They also want the suspension of a plan to release 210,000 tonnes of stockpiled -- but fast-degrading -- rubber to the market, fearing it will further depress prices.
Their disquiet threatens a fallout with the junta'.
The Nation (Oct. 19) follows up with a small article on how farmers are measuring up government price policies:
'Rubber farmers in Surat Thani said yesterday the government's goal to push for a price of Bt60 per kilogram while also providing farmers Bt1,000 per rai, for up to 15 rai as in a fertiliser subsidy, was acceptable'.
On the 29th the Nation notes the discontent.
'Leaders of rubber farmers in the South have expressed disappointment with the government subsidy of Bt1,000 per rai, limited to a maximum of 15 rai each.
Tossapol Kwanrod, chairman of the rubber and palm oil farmers' network in 16 southern provinces, said the government had ignored calls from the rubber farmers to offer sustainable solutions. It had opted to provide short-term remedies similar to those of previous governments'.
Counting the cost
The Bangkok Post has the inside story on the rice pledge scheme: 
'The government's rice stocks have been found to be in a very poor state, with as much as 90% classified as substandard — and the cost to the state could be 580-700 billion baht'. 
That would be 18-20 billion US$! It continues:
'On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha revealed the outcome of a nationwide rice audit led by ML Panadda Diskul, permanent secretary for the Prime Minister's Office, that reported only 10% of the 18 million tonnes of rice was of good quality.
"The report shows 70% of the rice is tainted with a yellow colour, while the rest is in bad condition and not edible and should only be allocated for ethanol production," said Gen Prayut.
The inspection also found about 100,000 tonnes of rice missing.
A Commerce Ministry source said the figure of only 100,000 tonnes of rice missing from state stocks was quite insignificant compared with the 3 million tonnes reported missing in June 2013 by former deputy finance permanent secretary Supa Piyajitti, who chaired a subcommittee overseeing the accounts of the pledging scheme'.
Then later (Nov. 6) it reports losses might just reach 1 trillion Thai bhat (~30 billion $US). It's a very extensive account with lots of doomsday scenario's: it even emphasizes that the country will go broke if an elected (and democratic) government ever gets into power!

And on the thirteenth, Bangkok Post notes the following:
'More than a dozen rice-pledging schemes since 2004 have cost the country 682 billion baht, but about 76% of those losses were caused by the previous government’s four programmes, the Finance Ministry said'.
So what is the cost?

Ways forward
The Nation (Oct. 20) notes the new Thai government policy towards rice farmers:
'Rice farmers nationwide will today receive the government subsidy of Bt1,000 per rai - up to 15 rai - per household.
The registration period for the subsidy will continue until November 15'.
The Bangkok Post on the same day mentions that the first farmers already have the cash on their accounts.

But there are other ways to help poor people. Take this example (The Nation, November 5): 
'A large area of public land covering 5,000 plots in 22 provinces is set to be distributed by the middle of next year so poor and landless citizens around the country can rent areas to grow crops for at least five years, the Lands Department announced yesterday'. 
Farmers were not satisfied, they want to have something they can sell ...
The news follows Thai Prime Minister recent promise to help poor Thais regain happiness via the allocation of public land as a gift in the New Year.

The future for rice marketing may well be niche marketing. Bangkok Post (Oct. 29) has an interesting example of doing business via Facebook:
'Sirimanee Maneethapho, a new-generation farmer in tambon Tha Tarn of Bang Krathum district, said she and her friends had been contacted by a middleman to grow Hom Nil rice in the previous crop with a promise of getting 10,000 baht a tonne for unmilled rice. The group bought seed from the middleman, who said the rice would be sold to health-conscious consumers.
But after they harvested the rice, the middleman did not show up to buy the produce as promised. Ms Sirimanee said at that time she was in urgent need of money to care for her sick mother so she decided to try advertising Hom Nil rice on Facebook. To her surprise, the product received a warm welcome, so much so that she could sell almost five tonnes within three months at around 30,000 baht each. For the new crop, Ms Sirimanee has allowed pre-orders. She plans to grow riceberry — a crossbred variety between brownish purple and black aromatic rice — as well as white jasmine, fragrant and white rice'.
Bangkok Post (Oct. 9) mentions that now the rice pledging scheme has ended, the rice export market has returned to the old situation: Thailand returns to the no. 1 position. Excerpt:
'Two years after losing its place as the world's biggest rice exporter, Thailand has displaced India to return to the top spot, global-industry information firm IHS Inc said Thursday'.
It also mentions this sentence which seems to go beyond that of impartial reporting:
'Global buyers refused to buy it [rice pledged] in retaliation for Ms Yingluck's attempt to manipulate the market by hoarding grain'.
Bangkok Post (Oct. 29) in an unrelated article has these lines:
'Prices have dropped 19% this year, heading for the biggest loss since 2001 and helping keep a lid on global food costs that the United Nations said fell for a sixth month in September. The Bloomberg Agriculture Index of seven commodities slid the most last quarter since 2008 as the USDA projects combined global output of rice, corn, soybeans and wheat will advance to a record this season'.
The Laotian government announces more land deals with China, now also in the south of Laos. So reports the Vientiane Times (Oct. 29): 
'The project will cover an area of 10,000 hectares and the project activities will include rice plantations, irrigation systems, livestock husbandry, fruit tree plantations and modern processing factories'.
The Lao government hopes to increase production of rice for export (Vientiane Times, Oct. 10):
'The government is focusing on increasing rice production for export sales as the country has been growing enough to meet local demand for more than ten years.
In response to the recommendations of the government, farmers all around the country have been changing their growing methods by adopting new planting techniques and acquiring improved seeds.
A large number of farmers have shifted to a more automated form of ploughing and seeding for their rice planting and again at harvest time as the use of the machines speeds up the work and requires much less labour'.

Vietnamnet (Oct. 30) has an article on how subsidies on rice and rice growing work for Vietnam. They don't. 
'The policy on rice subsidy does not benefit Vietnamese farmers and consumers, as rice export prices are even lower than domestic prices'.
One way for a solution would be to remove VAT tax of 5% levied on domestic consumption.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Found lacking

What's hot news, what's not? 

Arguably in the hybrid rice world there's nothing bigger than this momentarily.
Researchers on hybrid rice in China claim to have a hybrid rice which breaches productivity of 15 ton/ha (Oryzae.com, Oct. 6). Whether it's tasty or not remains unclear ...

But in the rice export headlines it's this: India is expected to be no. 1 rice exporter  for 2015, so reports Oryzae.com (Oct. 8). Mostly due to increased production and higher demand. That spells prices going down ....

But neither have major implications. Productivity with hybrids is still not changing the perspective, while prices going down is just too good a news item that we're not interested in at all!

Meanwhile in Cambodia ...
The first 9 months have passed. And exports are up ..., but only just. Phnom Penh Post (Oct. 6): 
'A report from the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture published Saturday shows that from January to September, the Kingdom exported about 270,000 tonnes of rice, up 1.2 per cent from the same nine-month period last year.
Sok Puthyvuth, president of the Cambodian Rice Federation, said the figure represents only a slight improvement on last year but that Thailand’s stockpile selloff in late 2013 had impacted the market'.
Adding to this. AMRU Rice hopes to be in the position to export 2,500 tonnes of organic rice from the province of Preah Vihear later this year. Destination Europe. Small write up by Phnom Penh Post (Sept. 9).

As expected Cambodia lost the bid to deliver rice to the Philippines (Phnom Penh Post, Sept. 19).

The Cambodia Daily (Sept. 12) is putting it's money on China as a potential super importer of rice from Cambodia: 
'China’s contaminated agriculture sector and robust demand for rice has created a potentially lucrative opportunity for Cambodian ex­porters if they can better promote their produce to compete with re­gional rivals, experts said at a workshop on rice markets in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
But in order to obtain a greater share of the Chinese market, speak­ers said, Cambodia must work to dispel the country’s notion that Cambodia’s rice is overpriced and of low quality.
Hun Lak, vice president of the Cambodian Rice Federation, said China has given Cambodia the “green light” following an agreement last month between China’s state-owned China National Ce­re­als, Oils and Foodstuffs Corp., or Cof­co, and Cambodia to import 100,000 tons within a year.
“The 100,000 ton quota is a trial. They’ve given us the green light to see if we can commit,” he said'.
Ground breaking research by the Asian Development Bank. The Cambodia Daily (Oct. 3): 
'A lack of skills and knowledge among farmers is to blame for the underdevelopment of Cambodia’s rice sector, as growers are unfamiliar with commercial farming methods that produce higher yields, according to a study released by the Asian Development Bank on Thursday'. 
The study finds that dry season rice growing is more productive (but not necessarily economically attractive ...?), so the conclusion is that more farmers should grow dry season rice. Even though it might not be finacially beneficial? But why aren't farmers producing in the dry season? Lack of water? The brief summary also has this: 
'Since increased farm size is one of the most important factors for raising the levels of farm production and commercialization, investment climate factors that induce reallocation of land may potentially have greater value over the long term than those that only affect short-term production'. 
This seems at odds with the reality where smaller farms produce more efficient, both in terms of productivity and financial returns. Begs the question, why bother reading this report ....?

Across the border Thailand´s rice merry go round is continuing unabated.
With the Thai junta's honeymoon now passed they seem to be losing favour, as could be expected. Graft continues, but apparent incompetency by rulers is gaining popularity, no surprises there. So what to do? Curry favour!
The Bangkok Post (Sep 19) note 
'A government panel agreed Friday to expedite subsidy payments to rubber farmers in exchange for them dropping planned street protests while policymakers work to reform the industry'. 
It's been well-noted that the government has been pursuing better policies for rubber farmers in the south who would be more inclined to support the current government and the anti-Taksin stance. 
However not all is hunky dory: 
'The country, meanwhile, laid plans to unload all the rubber it holds in state stockpiles, starting with 100,000 tonnes which it already agreed to sell. However, the head of Thailand's rubber industry group complained to Bloomberg that the published terms of the sale were unclear. The government did not name the buyer and gave a sales price above the spot market.
"We are afraid that the deal could be just a political ploy to tell the market that the stocks have been slashed," Perk Lertwangpong, head of the
Rubber Growers Cooperative Federation of Thailand, told Bloomberg Tuesday. "But the rubber may not have gone anywhere and could still
keep pressuring prices, with the government still paying burdensome storage costs." After Friday's meeting, Gen Prayut acknowledged that the committee has not yet reached a decision
whether to sell the stockpile, which was built up under the previous government's rubber-support scheme'. 
On this news prices of rubber dropped to a 5-year low ... A day later the Nation reports likewise, all rubber farmers are sorted out. They hope.

Success in protesting nurtures more. The Bangkok Post (Sept. 29): 
'Rice farmers recently asked for help from the government after a similar call from rubber growers in 16 southern provinces demanding intervention to arrest the seemingly unstoppable fall in rubber prices.
Rice farmers [] have demanded the government guarantees 10,000 baht per tonne of paddy against market price of 8,000-9,000 baht. The government, however, does not want to repeat the previous governments' populist policies by guaranteeing a rice price or through a pledging scheme, but prefers to help the farmers reduce their production costs by about 500 baht per rai.
Fertiliser and pesticide traders' associations have been asked by the NCPO to provide more discounts to farmers, and landlords have been told to cut rental fees for farmland. The price of rice seeds for cultivation too will be lowered. Also, cheap loans will be made available to farmers by the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives'. 
Well fancy that: you can tell landlords to lower their rent. Doubt it! Anyway the article then goes on to champion organic rice growers who won't gain anything from the above measures to lower inputs. It also stresses the low productivity in Thailand and the low net income Thai farmers gleam from their toils ...

Apparently a better plan is in the making. It would mean that rice farmers would be persuaded to give up their crops in return for planting the rice fields with other crops. The junta would thus thrust money at rice farmers and wean their political support from Thaksin and hope that farmers would not complain about drought conditions. The Nation (Oct. 2):
'Northeastern Rice Farmers Association president Panupong Pattarakhon-ngam yesterday said he was aware of the drought threat, but he could not agree with the government plan.
Panupong described such a plan as a populist scheme that would hurt rice farmers in the long run.
"We grow rice not just for sale. We grow it for our family's consumption too," he said.
He said the size of paddy fields in Thailand had already been shrinking naturally in response to demand-and-supply mechanisms.
On the rice price, Panupong said the problem was now serious because the government was still trying to release a vast amount of rice from its stockpiles'.
Rice farmers might want to stage a protest ...

Having thus tested the waters, the Thai government has now decided against dissuading rice growing. Of course they were never in favour of this, it was all scaremongering, etc. Well so is one to believe (The Nation, Oct. 7). But:
'The junta chief said the focus would be on utilising less farmland and water while at the same time increasing productivity.
Prayut [PM slash junta chief] said farmers would be classified into four groups - very poor or landless, those owning more than 40 rai of farmland, those with more wealth or those who use tractors or other machinery, and those operating farms and also leasing other farmland.
All groups would be eligible for different kinds of government assistance or subsidies'.
So now suddenly the previous rice pledging scheme does not look too bad ..., certainly in the way it was executed and the possibilities of graft. Another whopper season ahead for cashing in on the hapless farmers of Thailand! (And the tax payers ...).

The PM responds and says that the free cash is not forever (Bangkok Post, Oct. 3). Apparently it is to help the farmers to "adjust" from the previous government's handout to some new handout.

The Bangkok Post (Oct. 5) adds
'This will cost you 40 billion baht. But while it's the most jaw-dropping, widespread and legal give-away in the country's history, it's actually just a tiny part of the stimulus package unveiled by MR Pridiyathorn and his boss. It amounts to more than a third of a trillion baht of spending in a tiny timeframe.
Critics called it a "freebie" and pinned on it the most ignominious label of the day: "Populist."
The Bangkok Post already sees 1 problem (Oct. 3) What about the 800,000 landless rice farmers? They get nada? Their landlord gets the dough? Or is this new idea just as brainless? Or heaven forbid worse ..

And in a reversal of fortunes, the above plans have caught other farmers out. Why are rice farmers been given cash handouts and not others? The Nation (Oct. 4) notes that rubber and corn growers are protesting. And so are the landless rice growers. Back to square one?

It comes as no surprise that many farmers have already hoped to get their share by registering. The Nation (Oct. 8): 
'THOUSANDS OF farmers have eagerly registered for the government's scheme to hand out a Bt1,000 subsidy for each rai of their paddy fields'.
New Mandala (Sept. 19) features on the rice / rubber support saga's. Are the powers trying to buy off allegiance? Are they indeed hoping to divide and rule?

Finally, some hyper news, Thai exports will hit 11 million tonnes, so reports Bangkok Post (Oct. 1). This would be Thailand's highest ever annual export figure. No mention is made of the cost to farmers and tax payers ...

Thai exports of rice up 60%, so reports the Nation (Oct. 3). That's what happens when a normal year follows a poor one ...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On track

Less on price developments this time, doesn't seem to be high in the press reports. Probably because there is a downward trend meaning that many of the soothsayers are yet on the wrong side of predictions ....

With the rains pouring down it's all about meeting targets. Vientiane Times (Sept. 3) notes the following:
'This year’s wet season rice crop is on track to reach 98 percent of the planned target if no more fields are flooded or affected in any other way'. 
Total output was hoped to reach 4 million tonnes.
Oddly enough the flooding occurring now in Thailand has yet to effect press reporting on rice statistics.

However Thai rice exports did hit a 3 year high. For July, so says the Nation (Sept 1). And though everybody seems upbeat, the higher volumes come at much lower prices ...

Lengths of Enthusiasm
The biggest news from Cambodia concerns non-news. Coming up in November: the World Rice Conference is set to take place in Phnom Penh. After winning prestigious prices for it's rice in years past, the Phnom Penh Post (August 28) reports on the decision for Cambodia:
'“Cambodia was chosen for its enthusiasm and efforts to develop export trade and raise its potential in high-quality rice markets, as well as for its excellent facilities in hosting the event,” said V. Subramanian, vice president of The Rice Trader'.
Meanwhile Cambodia's rice sector is to be boosted by increased storage under the name of Cambodia Rice Bank (CRB,  Phnom Penh Post, August 29): 
'CRB, which was established in Battambang province in 2011 but took years to build the necessary infrastructure like silos and storage sheds, emerged yesterday with $30 million in capital'.
Bidding for the Philippines has not brought much for Cambodia, yet. The Phnom Penh Post (September 5): 
'Despite failing in its latest attempt to win the Philippine government’s bid to import rice, Cambodia will once again throw its hat into the ring when the offer is reissued, industry representatives said yesterday'. 
Interesting is especially the comment on this article: 
'I am always amused whenever I see articles of Cambodian rice exporters claiming to be bidding in such international rice tenders that are rather meant for "Big League Exporters". When one sees the names of global trading firms involved in the bidding process coupled with all the technical terms & conditions imposed in the Filipino tender documents, one simply "know" Cambodia is far off from being at that level yet. Filipino tender documents require such complicated technical terms & conditions that none of the Cambodian rice exporters could even fulfill and meet'.
Troubling data? 
'European rice imports from least developed countries, mainly Cambodia, have soared 51 percent over the last year, a figure that Italy’s National Rice Agency has labeled “troubling new data” in its battle to have tariff-free exports scrapped.
Mr. Carriere [director of the Italian Rice Millers Association] said the National Rice Agency has drafted a dossier on Cambodia that it will submit to Italy’s Minister for Economic Development to organize an industry meeting to discuss protecting its rice sector'. 
The article (Phnom Penh Post, Aug. 28) is interesting especially to the non-answer from Cambodia.
Not all European companies view Cambodian rice imports as a threat. Oryza.com has an interview with Bart Rouwers of Alesie Food (July 29). Oddly the opportunities Alesie see are importing rice from Cambodia (sic) ...!

The Phnom Penh Post (Aug. 21) notes that the results of the agricultural census have been made public: 
'The 33-page report states that 2.2 million out of a possible 2.6 million or 85 per cent of all households are engaged in some form of agricultural-related activity, such as growing rice, raising livestock, fishing or extracting rubber.
Of that number, the census states that 1.9 million households are officially considered to have agriculture “holdings”, meaning they have at least two large livestock or three small livestock or 25 poultry or land equal to 300 square metres.
According to the preliminary census results, 73 per cent of all agriculture-related households operate only to serve home consumption, leaving 27 per cent who are reportedly selling their crops and livestock.
“This pointed out the dependence of the rural households on agriculture for food,” the report states, adding that on average each household has about four members.
Non-aromatic paddy rice is by far Cambodia’s largest crop, with 90 per cent of all holdings engaged in growing the cheaper variety.
“This was due to the fact that the cost of using non-aromatic paddy was not too expensive compared with the aromatic paddy/rice,” the report reasons'.
Seems strange as the local rice is also characterised as aromatic, not anymore ...?

The Cambodia Daily (Aug. 26) reports on upcoming innovations on how possibly farmers can get more up-to-date info.
'An international agriculture NGO is preparing to roll out a nationwide project in partnership with computer-chip maker Intel whereby more than 25,000 farmers will be able to receive real-time advice on farming methods via a smartphone app'. 
As the programme will also be handing out smartphones themselves, no doubt it will prove very successful until their stock runs out ...

Strange as it may seem, but there is just the one article on the Thai rice pledging scheme. Information has been weaned from the Thai government, apparently sample's are not up to what ever grades required:
'The inspection found that only 235 rice samples out of 1,339 samples tested from July 7-31 passed the standard quality, said the document distributed on Friday evening.
The rest failed to meet the standard because it was apparent the colour was "wrong", the samples went bad or were damaged by pests, or were mixed with cheaper grains, among other things'.
In other non-rice news, Asiaone reports (August 28) on Vietnam Rubber Group's rubber investments in Lao P.D.R. and Cambodia. After being globally shamed they are now putting into place a systems through which affected communities can complain and their complaints can be addressed. Global Witness gives this system 2 years to prove itself.
The same story is carried by the Phnom Penh Post (August 23). It adds:
'David Pred, managing director at Inclusive Development International, which advocates for displaced communities, said via email Friday that another Vietnamese rubber giant, the privately owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), had also agreed to some concessions.
HAGL, which is also partly funded by the World Bank and also accused by Global Witness of illegally clearing forests and displacing communities, recently went under the microscope of the IFC ombudsmen, who is now mediating negotiations between the company and affected communities.
“Company representatives have told us and the communities that they recognize that they have made mistakes and are committing to correct them,” Mr. Pred said.
“However, we are waiting to see whether this commitment will really be translated into the return of community land and sacred areas that the HAGL concessions illegally confiscated.”
Eang Vuthy, executive director at Equitable Cambodia, which has lobbied for the displaced communities, said that for some, there is no compensation that could be adequate.
“It is difficult to compensate. These are indigenous people and they have a different way of living, a different culture,” Mr. Vuthy said.
“Burial grounds and spirit forests cannot be replaced. And it also must be said, what they have done is illegal.”'.
Rubber is also in the news in Thailand (Bangkok Post, August 26). With dropping prices farmers are starting to despair. One of the problems is the Thai government selling their stocks probably before prices drop further. But naturally this means that prices will head downwards due to the sale itself, a self-fulfilling proficiency? Farmers typically want more. As most rubber is down in the unrestive south, it seems the treatment of these farmers is better than those of the north dependent on rice ...

In Laos research has been presented concerning contract farming. The Vientiane Times (Sept. 1):  
'Results demonstrated that contract farming is a strategy with potential to modernise agriculture and reduce rural poverty in Laos.
In some cases, contract farming in Laos reduced rural poverty. For instance, contract farming contributed to poverty reduction by about 12 percent in the maize case and by 170 percent in the bananas case.
Meanwhile, commercialised large-scale agricultural investments are likely to deteriorate land resources in the future. Unless appropriate measures are in place, the economic gains from contract farming in Laos may not outweigh the economic costs to the country.
Director General of NERI Dr Leeber Leebouapao told Vientiane Times on Friday that he was very concerned about the herbicides used in contract farming, fearing that overuse of chemical substances would impact people's health and the environment'. 
So not so positive ...