Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Assessment

Not much to mention this month, everyone seems busy in growing rice itself rather than buying, selling and / or producing hot air.

Let's start with some bytes from Cambodia itself. The Phnom Penh Post (Jun. 8):
'Cambodian rice exports have dramatically declined over the past three months compared to the same period last year, according to data released by the General Department of Agriculture yesterday. The data detailed that rice exports had a monthly decrease of 14.5 per cent in March, 30.8 per cent in April, and 28.5 per cent in May'.  
It seems that the dropping prices which are heading even more lower are driving Cambodian government policies.

Take the Khmer Times (Jun. 29):
'The government has come to the rescue of rice millers and exporters, currently in the throes of a serious financial crisis, with loans of between $20 and $30 million to the Cambodia Rice Federation (CRF). This is to help the sector purchase rice from farmers after the harvest this November, to store in warehouses and process them for export, said the CRF'.
Or this from the Phnom Penh Post (Jun. 29): 
'The Ministry of Economy and Finance announced on Monday that the government will block all illegal rice imports at its borders and limit legal rice shipments from Vietnam based on production cost.
...
According to Sarith [secretary-general of the Cambodian Rice Federation (CRF)], Vietnamese rice produced for $200 to $300 per tonne was cheaper than locally milled rice, even with a 17 per cent import and VAT tax assessed'. 
Or Phnom Penh Post (Jun. 1):
'The Institute of Standards of Cambodia (ISC) is soliciting feedback from local stakeholders as it prepares to launch two new standards for the rice industry, the country’s most important agricultural sector.
The ISC is giving the public until June 30 to comment on its proposed national standards for the production and trade of two premium rice varieties – phka rumduol and phka chansensar – Chheng Uddara, director of the ISC’s standards development, training and consultancy department, said yesterday'.
The New Mandala (Jul. 1) has an extensive view of the direction where the Cambodian rice industry should be heading. Synopsis of what needs to be done: branding, certifying and reducing transport costs.

That may seem so easy, but in all three mentioned Cambodia is far behind competitors. 
The article concludes that the only way to stay competitive is to market a different product. Alas, the article fails to mention what that different product should be.

Hurting
Further afield the Bangkok Post (Jun. 3) seems very much interested in what the junta is feeding the press
'The government is set to call its biggest rice auction to capitalise on higher demand as new supply wanes.
...
Chookiat Ophaswongse, honorary president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, said the new auction was timely given high market demand, but noted the amount was relatively high. Mr Chookiat said the government's auction was unlikely to affect rice market prices, as state stocks are mostly old grains while foreign purchase orders require primarily newly harvested rice'.
Naturally then that the Bangkok Post reports (Jun. 16) on the positives of this recent rice auction:
'The government has sold an estimated 1.99 million tonnes in its latest rice auction, the biggest since the National Council for Peace and Order took control, fetching 19.4 billion baht'.
And more government sales are expected from Thailand (Bangkok Post, Jun. 28):
'Thai rice is likely to see strong sales in the second half of the year as officials visit various countries to make deals amid expected healthy demand'. 
Funny thing though is that sales are still down for 2016 at lower prices ...
 
Rice production will be down in Laos (Vientiane Times, Jun. 23): 
'Rice production this fiscal year may be less than targeted as both natural disaster, including drought and flooding, as well as insects are expected to impact crop yields'. 
Vientiane Times on (Jul. 1) reports on the sudden realisation that most of what Laos produces is de-facto organic
'Officials believe that some rice fields in Savannakhet province that do not use chemical pesticides and herbicides might have the potential to grow organic rice for the international market.
Talking on the possible markets there was this comment:
'“One of the problems we found during the training of farmers is the change from old skills to new. It's hard to tell them to change what they have learnt from their parents about farming rice,” he [Head of the plantation division of the Savannakhet Agriculture and Forestry Department] said'.
Then from Vietnam the Tuoitrenews (Jun. 11) comes with trade news:
'China has started applying more stringent regulation to ensure the safety of rice imports from Vietnam, a move some Vietnamese insiders say will benefit, instead of hurting, the rice sector'. 
It seems to stimulate official imports over illegal and give impetus to quality control while bringing down costs for verification. All good news apparently.

Peaked
A couple of other crops to hear from. Btw what's happened to our rubber press?

Anyway, the Phnom Penh Post (Jun. 14) focuses on the negatives of the black pepper boom which manifests itself in increased deforestation both to expand in area as well as to provide supports:
'While the luxury timber trade continues to eat away at Cambodia’s forests, there is another industry that poses a growing threat to the Kingdom’s trees: pepper farms.
...
Black pepper prices peaked during June 2015 at $10,900 per tonne, compared to $1,560 per tonne in July 2005, according to Nedspice. 
....
“Not only local people but also newcomers want to grow pepper,” said Prob Chib, a member of a Phnong ethnic community in Mondulkiri, adding that the new arrivals hail from Kratie, Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Prey Veng, Takeo and Siem Reap. 
“First they cut down the forest and sell the wood, then they occupy the land while they grow pepper, then they cut the forest in another location to make pepper stakes. It’s double deforestation'.
More negatives, this time from the banana business. The Bangkok Post (Jun. 5) looks at the banana business driven by Chinese interests in the north of Thailand.
The article explores recent developments with large scale investment from China into banana growing. Much is made of it's supposedly over-use of chemicals, it's extraction of water from rivers and the way these leases are set up with what might be foreign entities (not allowed under Thai law). 

It makes a comparison with Japanese driven investment in northern Thai agriculture: 
'Under Lanna Agro-Industrial's model contract farmers, who own the land, have the power to negotiate prices, said Ekasit Nunbhakdi, coordinator of the Japan Watch Project and a researcher for Thailand Research Fund. "We have to ask ourselves why Thai farmers have to rely on Chinese investors, who are perceived as treating workers and resources poorly. Are we taking care of our farmers well?" ddition, Thailand does not view agriculture as important to its culture. "Unlike the Japanese who see agriculture as part of their cultural foundation," Mr Ekasit said."Thailand views agriculture as a commercial product. Thai farmers receive too little assistance, they take whatever they can get."   
Equally on the negative subject the Vientiane Times (Jun. 16):
'Imports of cassava and its products into Thailand must adhere to the specific government announcements, Thai government officials reaffirmed'.
It seems Thailand is willing to kill off imports by insisting on officialdom.


Paintbrush
Then the wrapping up of this blog some GMO issues. 

Regionally: the Bangkok Post (Jun. 9) copies as decreed by junta:
'Authorities have brushed aside farmers' concerns about imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) if Thailand joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Winichai Chaemchaeng, commerce vice-minister, said the TPP would limit GMO issues only to information exchange and cooperation on trade-related matters associated with products of modern biotechnology. Thailand has the Plant Quarantine Act that bars imports of GMOs, he said'.
Unfortunately the TPP will trump national legislation ...

Finally, the undergroundreporter notes (Jun. 15) how Brazil has a moratorium on imports of GMO from the United States: 
'The list of countries refusing Monsanto’s genetically-modified crops continues to grow. Highlighting the world divide on the issue, Brazil recently refused all U.S.-grown GM crops. While we are continually force-fed genetically modified foods — since they are in approximately 80 percent of all packaged, conventional foods in grocery stores in America — other countries are refusing to import them, grow them, or sell them within their borders.
...
Ironically, Brazil is the the second largest producer of GM crops in the world after the U.S., and grows 29 varieties of GM corn, so they are likely pulling rank for trade rather than hoping to save their population’s health  ...'.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Front

Halting the unlimited expansion of GMO crops are consumers and governments empowering them.

News office Reuters (May 6) explains the current situation concerning GMO crops and the hesitation in continuing on the same foot, albeit from a US perspective:
'Across the U.S. Farm Belt, top grain handlers have banned genetically modified crops that are not approved in all major overseas markets, shaking up a decades-old system that used the world's biggest exporting country as a launchpad for new seeds from companies like Monsanto Co.
...
The United States is the biggest producer of GMO crops and has long been at the forefront of technology aiming to protect crops against insects or allow them to resist herbicides.
That innovation is now seen as a risk to trade because it is hard to segregate crops containing unapproved traits from the billions of identical-looking bushels exported every year'.
Corporations and with them some governments wish to sell products to the public, which the same public has little or no faith in. 
The GMO lobbys' pitch is for more production (for farmers, but at lower prices ...) and lower prices (for the public, but also poorer quality); the lobbys' only real motivation is profit. 
Count ourselves lucky that there are still some governments who are able to withstand the lobbying power of these corporations. And are holding these same corporations to account.
Whether or not this will stay depends on the future of the TPP trade deal (or similar deals) as it seems the EU will cave in to business interests (source) while the companies pushing GMO and hybrids are hoping to get evermore stronger.

TPP and rice will lead to changes. The American DeltaFarmPress (May 20) has it doubts on TPP and the effect on local growers. 
Why? Mexico. 
Until 2008, Mexico had import tariffs on rice, but not on  those from the USA. Come rice price crisis (2007-2009), these tariffs were done away with and thus all of a sudden Vietnamese and Thai rice became (much) cheaper than US imported rice. Since though US lobbying has raised the tariff levels once again but the angst which concerns US farmers is that the TPP will result in the same tariffs applying to all signatories: Vietnam. So no easy market anymore for US rice. And thus little support from US rice farmers.

Considerate
Not too much from the Cambodian front. 
In the first highlight it is noted by Khmer times (May 5) that Cambodia is still no nearer ramping up rice exports to China:
'Officials from China will arrive in Cambodia soon to audit and evaluate rice producing companies and to check warehouses.
...
In December last year, China asked Cambodia to evaluate its rice exporters to determine whether they adhered to hygiene laws in China, because officials in the world’s second largest economy did not trust all of the 71 rice exporters registered with the Ministry of Commerce. They sent them the final registration list of rice producers and processors by the end of December last year and they will come to Cambodia to re-check and re-audit'.
However what about this smart marketing move from Cambodia? The Khmer Times (May 30):
'Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday asked China to consider Cambodia’s rice stocks as part of its effort to distribute food relief to other countries'.
Then the forgotten issue of illegal rice imports. The Phnom Penh Post (May 9):
'More than a month has elapsed since the government vowed to strengthen its borders to halt illegal imports of rice, yet little has been done to stem the flow of illicit rice shipments flooding into Cambodia from its foreign neighbours and undermining the export efforts of local producers'.
Not such a high priority?

Burden
On the Asian front (minus price issues), it's noted that China starts rice imports from Laos (source), see the following vdo.  Is China going Khao Niao?

Meanwhile the short term sees Philippines struggling to cope with drought. the Bangkok Post (May 4):

'The Philippines said on Wednesday that drought had caused the country's rice output to drop by about 300,000 tonnes, or a third higher than its estimate last month, and there was a risk heavy rains later in the year could inflict more crop damage'.
Insuring your rice in Thailand. PBS notes (May 22) that the Thai junta would want this to become mandatory. 
'The government is considering a plan which will make it compulsory for rice farmers to insure their rice crops with insurance companies which, in the long run, will ease the government’s burden in helping farmers'.
Just passing on the contentious bone. Eventually farmers would be compensating themselves, with insurance companies doing the admin and charging a hefty sum for the effort, no doubt.

Haggling
Prices of rice are edging upwards as everybody expects that climate disruption associated with El Niño weather patterns will bring havoc, at least some to the rice market with farmers here and there having problems with drought. This certainly has captured the global attention. Britains' the Independent (May 4): 
'The world is expected to suffer a major rice shortage after global production was hit by extreme weather patterns - potentially fuelling an international price crisis.
...
Dr
Samarendu Mohanty from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) told The Independent: “There is no doubt that the supply situation is very tight, and this will inevitably cause a spiral in demand.
“T
he extent of this crisis all depends on what happens during the upcoming monsoon season. If it goes badly in India and Indonesia and the crops don’t get the rain, there could be real trouble ahead.”
Less prominent, the Business Recorder (May 17) focuses on rice export prices:
'Benchmark Thai rice prices hit a two-year high on Tuesday as drought cut output from Asia's top rice growers and stoked demand for Thai exports, rice traders and exporters said.
Prices are at their highest level since the Thai military seized power two years ago and ended generous subsidies that  caused a glut in supply and a massive build-up in rice stockpiles in Thailand'.
Hurrah for the junta, which has hushed their own policies for Thai rice farmers?
 
The Bangkok Post (May 24) believes that prices will also rise in Thailand:
'Consumers are warned of a possible rise in the price of packaged rice as a dip in white rice output may lead packers to push for the increase over the next few months'. 
The article emphasizes how the packaged product will become more expensive, not necessarily the price farmers will receive ....
Then some bad news for the exporting nations. One of the main importers (the Philippines) hopes to become self sufficient in the near future. The Bangkok Post (May 13):
'The Philippines, the world's No. 3 rice buyer, regularly imports more than a million tonnes a year of the food staple to meet demand from its growing population'.
It's debatable whether or not the Philippines would be able to attain this. But expect this to further drive local prices down (which in return dissuades local farmers from growing (and investing in) more ...

The IRRI (May 27) has another take on this road plan. According to trade agreements, the Philippines will need to take the opposite road: no import restrictions meaning more exports to the Philippines. Or lower prices for farmers.

In the meantime there's Thailands great sell-off to contend with. Vietnam is not so fond of the Thai auction (Thanhnien, May 9):
'Thailand’s plan to sell off its rice stockpile within two months has sparked concerns for Vietnamese rice exporters, many of whom have been already hitting bumps.
They said Thailand’s clearance of 11.4 million tons, more than the country’s annual average export, in such a short period will push prices down significantly and hurt consumption of rice from Vietnam'. 
Not only is the sell-off cushioning prices, it's also distorting markets for Vietnamese exports. Vietnamnet (May 16):
'Luong Anh Tuan, director of Thinh Phat Food, also said that loyal markets had stopped negotiating to buy Vietnam’s rice. They are waiting to see the moves to be taken by Thailand before making a decision.
“Meanwhile, other partners of Vietnam from China and Africa will haggle with Vietnamese exporters about the prices and try to force the prices down,” Tuan said'.
There don't seem to be any apparent remedies for Vietnam, other than seeking new markets.  
Maybe it would be better to ride out the oncoming storm?

Meanwhile the Bangkok Post (May 18) seize on this:
'Agencies in Cambodia announced on Wednesday that the country's rice exports have increased more than fivefold over the past five years.
A joint statement released by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, and the Cambodia Rice Federation, said "Cambodia's formal milled rice exports have significantly increased in the last five years, from approximately 100,000 metric tonnes in 2010 to 530,000 metric tonnes in 2015."
The usual 
The trials and tribulations with growing other crops, starting off with rubber from which the appeal has long ago waned. That's not so nice especially for northern Laos which bet heavily on this crop. The Vientiane Times (May 17):
'Many villagers in Phongsaly province have declined to plant rubber trees on their land following the continuing slump in the price of rubber on the world market.
A forestry expert from Phongsaly province, Mr Thongsavan Thammavong, told Vientiane Times yesterday that villagers quickly lost interest when they learnt what the sale price of rubber was.
“Many people here have wasted their time and lost opportunities by growing rubber as they can earn more by growing other crops,” Mr Thongsavan said.
Thousands of farmers in the province switched to planting cardamom after earning a good income from this crop, which they sold to Chinese traders'.
A vdo on the banana problem by Thai TV station PBS (May 5) concerning what is happening in northern Lao. 
Then the Nation (May 25) also reports on Chinese own, grow and export banana plantations in Lao PDR. The conclusions of the article:

'In Laos and Thailand, communities on both banks of the Mekong are now terrified about the adverse effects of Chinese agribusiness. People's health and the integrity of the natural environment are the first, often forgotten, casualties of this type of investment.
There has still been no official explanation by state authorities, in Thailand or in Laos, how these plantations will be regulated. Local people have been left behind to cope with this trans-border problem on their own, which is unfortunately business as usual'.
New sights are set this time for mangoes to Europe. The Phnom Penh Post (May 6) 
'Mong Reththy Group, the largest agro-industrial company in Cambodia, has sent 13 shipments of mangoes to Europe this year totalling 54,000 kilograms, the owner said yesterday'.
Laos is discovering Geographical Identification. The Nation (May 7): 
'Laos is preparing to certify its home-grown coffee with geographical indication (GI) and as a member of the International Coffee Organisation'.
Saga
The Bangkok Post (May 5) notes how research by Thai-PAN shows that much of what constitutes Thai organic fruit and vegetables is in fact non-organic: 
'The release of the findings Wednesday by Thai-PAN or the Thailand Pesticide Action Network which randomly collected and sent to labs samples of veggies from our markets showed most contain farm chemical residues higher than acceptable standards.
...

One-quarter of organic veggies that cost consumers a lot more than conventionally-grown types were found to be tainted with higher-than-acceptable levels of chemical residues.
...

More importantly, it showed that some farm chemicals that are legally banned, including carbofuran and methomyl, are still available. 
...
In all, the entire saga indicates that the state's efforts to promote food safety are just lip service'.
The article on the findings attracts many comments, mostly harsh critique denouncing practices of farmers, sellers and of course the Thai government / authorities.
Therefore one need not to be surprised on how the military-ruled government responds (Bangkok Post, May 10):
'A fruit and vegetable survey, released by the Thai-Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-Pan) late last week to widespread public concern, is questionable, says the National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards (ACFS)'. 
It's a pity authorities decline to accept the very indicative results of the sample process, i.e. that there's something massively wrong. Instead they call the process flawed and one can continue to take a deep sleep ... poor consumers.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Misguidance

It's been a while since I've highlighted hybrid rice as such, let alone the possibility of this growing in Cambodia. However it's the Asia Sentinel (Apr. 5) which tears into Cambodia's lack of political will to push the sector further:
'It may be only a matter of time before Cambodia’s rice industry disintegrates, partly as a result of a weak Cambodian Rice Federation and partly because of misguided government policies'.
It seems a pretty harsh critique, but the author of the article does seem to know what he's talking about. He then gives the following as evidence:
'The industry’s main players from the private sector must stand up to play a role in improving the industry in the face of a new problem. It has been reported that the Ministry of Agriculture has been testing a strain of low-quality but high-yield hybrid rice for export.  
...
There are two dangers in the government’s experience through the Ministry of Agriculture. As the industry runs through the testing process, without strict controls –which the government appears incapable of – hybrid pollens are certain to be spread rapidly kilometers away from the test zones, carried by the wind and insects or rodents.  Hybrid cultivation would very likely eradicate Cambodia’s high-quality Rumdoul and Sen Kra Ob varieties for good. Destruction of the native species from hybrids is likely.
Low-end hybrids recommended by the government would put Cambodia at a disadvantage to Vietnam. Our market positioning should be at the high end. Going along the hybrid route would simply spell disaster and if such news is true, it shows that our Agriculture Ministry policymakers do not fully comprehend the implications of such a policy blunder. Recommending the use of hybrid rice for Cambodia is wrong'.
Wrong it may be, but that's never stopped the establishment from pushing their own agenda.

Take for instance the Green Revolution which is yet to be continued and some would argue that this (the second Green Revolution staying away) is a plus for the globe's many small farmers.
However that's not going to stop the ambitions of for instance the IRRI. It has now (Apr. 7) got Green Super Rice (GSR) in the pipeline to address the future. The news item has suspicious little on detail. If one clicks on, one would discover that
'GSR varieties are a mix of more than 500 promising rice varieties and hybrids'.
Hmmm, there seems no stopping hybrid rice advocates.

Strengthening the struggle
One can't fail the Cambodian government for tinkering it's policies here and there. The Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 31):
'The government has decided to strengthen entry points along Cambodia’s borders to block illegal rice imports, while promising to dissolve any company’s certificate of origin that is caught mixing contraband rice for export, Cambodian Rice Federation (CRF) president Sok Puthyvuth announced following a meeting yesterday with Deputy Prime Minister Kheat Chhon.
Additionally, the government will scrap the value added tax (VAT) on imports of rice milling machinery – a move aimed at reducing millers’ high capital costs'.
The Cambodia Daily reports on the same but focuses more on the role of the VAT waiver. From Mekongoryza:
'The government decided to drop a 10 percent value added-tax (VAT) for rice products during a meeting on Wednesday between representatives of the rice sector and government officials at the Council for the Development of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, officials said.
...
Sam Arth Veasna, vice president of Federation of Cambodian Rice Farmer Organizations for Development, welcomed the government’s decision.
“Even though it is not a big offer, I think it would make farmers and rice millers feel better,” he said. “However, I cannot assess how much better.”
However bad news was on it's way, despite these measures being announced. The Phnom Penh Post (Apr. 6):
'After two promising months, Cambodia’s rice exports fell by 14 per cent year-on-year in March, according to new data by Ministry of Agriculture, sparking fears amongst rice millers that export shipments would further decline without adequate financial backing.
....
Rice millers said yesterday that the drop was evidence that the industry is struggling with the cost of production, high electricity bills and a lack of finance to purchase and store paddy rice.
...
While last Thursday the government agreed to cut the value added tax (VAT) on imports of rice milling machinery and step up border patrols to crack down on illegal rice imports, there has been no agreement on the facilitation of $250 million in soft loans to proposed by the CRISIS group to ease the financial burden on millers'.
Plans
The Bangkok Post (Mar. 31) reports on expectations that Thailand will be able export 9,5 million tonnes this year. Despite writing the government is upbeat, this target would represent less tonnage than last year and at a much lower value, at least so it looks like.

What's wisdom? The Thai government has announced a 60 day rice sell-off blitz? The Bangkok Post (Apr. 26):
'The government plans to sell all 11.4 million tonnes of rice in government stockpiles within two months for 100 billion baht, the country's rice management board, starting next week. The plan announced Monday is unprecedented in Thai export history - selling off more rice in two months than the country usually sells in a year. Average rice sales over the past couple of decades have been about 10 million tonnes. 
.... 
Traders were sceptical Monday about the government's ability to sell off remaining stocks in just two months. Supachai Vorraapinyaporn, president of Tanasan Rice Group, the third largest rice exporter, said the government's target of offloading the rice within two months was not possible. "This is a million percent impossible, considering that previous auctions were monthly, and only around 400,000 tonnes," said Mr Supachai. "Perhaps they meant two years, not two months," he added'.
Does the Thai government know something we don't? Surely prices are low. But what with El Niño in full swing one might expect less output from Southeast Asia and India, thus higher prices .... 
It does spell lower prices in the short term if it does indeed succeed in selling off virtually all their stock.

One to suffer will be Cambodia. The Khmer Times (Apr. 24):
'Cambodia Rice Federation (CRF) vice-president Hun Lak told Khmer Times yesterday the pledge by the Thai government to release so much milled stock so quickly would push the global price lower and have an indirect impact on Cambodian exports'.
But the junta has more bad news for it's farmers. The Bangkok Post reports (Apr. 22) on a communist approach by the junta to rice growing. 
'Commerce permanent secretary Chutima Bunyapraphasara said the area to be cultivated was set by a meeting of the committee planning for integrated rice cultivation.  
The Agriculture Ministry would announce the target zones for rice growing next week, along with planting dates'. 
It's unclear whether or not the junta will dictate the rains. But I assume that these will be just as difficult to line up, as will I believe the rice growing farmers. Will they outlaw rice growing outside these target areas? 
Another plan to show how incompetent the junta is.

Rebound
Another victim of El Niño is Thai sugar production. The Bangkok Post (Apr. 1):
'The El Nino weather phenomenon has played havoc with crops across Southeast Asia and beyond. Thailand, the world's second-largest sugar exporter, will ship 20% less of the sweetener to international markets this year than last, and farmers fear the damage already inflicted on young cane plants could make next year worse.
...
They are part of a growing number of rural Thais struggling with debt. Most are rice farmers, who were hit hard when the military seized power in 2014 and ended generous subsidies. The irony for some in Ratchaburi is that they have taken a double hit: They were encouraged to convert to sugar from rice as the government sought to cut subsidy reliance and reduce massive rice stocks. As epected prices will rise so not all bad news'.
Interestingly from Cambodia the report that palm sugar is going strong. The Phnom Penh Post (Apr. 1):
'Demand for Kampong Speu palm sugar has surged, with orders already up 70 per cent this year, as appetite for the premium organic sugar product grows, boosting its price.
Orders for 260 tonnes of the palm sugar have been placed this year, compared with 150 tonnes in all of last year, and despite its market price climbing to $1,400 per tonne, about $50 more than in 2015, Sam Saroeun, president of Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association (KSPSPA), said yesterday.
The Lao authorities report on opportunities for cardamom growing. The Vientiane Times (Apr. 4):
'Many local farmers in Phongsaly province are shifting to plant cardamom after earning lucrative income from growing this crop and selling it to Chinese traders.
...
However most villagers are very concerned about the fluctuation of the cardamom market, particularly when more people move to grow this crop as the prices might go down.
A painful lesson has been learned by farmers who grew rubber and falling princes of rubber led farmers in many provinces of Laos to lose profits while some had to resort to destroying their trees to grow other crops instead'.
Meanwhile banana farmers are fearing worse. Vientiane Times (Apr. 20):
'According to a recent report in the Chiang Rai Times , workers at Hongta International, a Chinese-owned banana plantation in Chiang Rai province's Phraya MengRai district, have been tested and found to have unusually high levels of chemicals in their blood.
The Chinese firm leased about 440 hectares of land in Phraya MengRai district to grow Cavendish bananas before the PhayaMengRai Hospital was assigned to conduct blood tests on 43 of the plantation's 200 workers.
The test results showed the health of 10 of the workers' was at risk, while 13 already had unsafe contamination levels. 
...
A survey undertaken by NAFRI [National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute] and unveiled on March 31 noted there were several reasons why Chinese companies wanted to establish banana plantations in Laos. One was the low cost of land leases, the second was low labour costs, and the third was the lax control of chemical use'. 
More positive news this time for rubber growers. The Phnom Penh Post (Apr. 29):
'A sharp rebound in international rubber prices has put workers at plantations in Cambodian back to work, and has infused the sector with a rare sense of optimism.
International rubber prices began rising in March from seven-year lows and have seen an upswing of 16 per cent since the start of April on concerns over output and expected pickup in demand from China'.
Finally, a short note from Thailand as to what they think about the possible TPP. The  Bangkok Post (Apr. 28):
'Farmers nationwide have threatened to organise protests against the government if it decides Thailand should take part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement'.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Alarm

As could be expected rice prices dropping tend to affect the rice industry itself rather than farmers directly. At least initially. And the current slump in prices is no difference, not in Cambodia.:

Disturbing news. Phnom Penh Post gives voices to the not so satisfied rice industry (Mar. 3):
'A newly formed coalition of rice millers and exporters has raised alarm bells, forecasting the imminent “collapse” of the nation’s rice sector within two years and blaming in part “governance failure” by the industry’s apex body'.
Infighting?
Not for long though. The Cambodian Rice Federation has got the message (Phnom Penh Post, Mar. 10):
'Responding to criticism, Cambodia’s apex rice industry body announced yesterday that it would submit a plan to Prime Minister Hun Sen that addresses two of the major challenges facing the Kingdom’s rice sector – competition from rice imports and access to finance for millers.
The Cambodia Rice Federation (CRF), which has come under fire from members critical of the direction in which the nation’s rice industry is being steered, will ask the government to make it mandatory for rice importers to have licences, and ask for its help in facilitating low-interest loans for millers, the federation revealed at a press conference yesterday'.
The Khmertimes (Mar. 17) has a similar article on the problems the Cambodian Rice Federation will put to the government:
'Two main issues will be put to the government when it holds an urgent meeting with the Cambodia Rice Federation (CRF) next week – a special fund package to help millers and exporters and a ban on imported rice from neighboring countries.
...
The special meeting was set up after complaints from the CRF outlined problems with a lack of funds to support production, imported rice from neighboring countries, the high cost of production, the high cost of logistics, the high cost of electricity, a lack of water, finding good seed stock, a lack of farm labor due to immigration and limited infrastructure and port storage facilities. The CRF claims that about 40 percent of the small- and medium-sized rice millers and exporters are close to stopping production and going bankrupt'.
The response of the government (Phnom Penh Post, Mar. 18):
'The Commerce Ministry has created a special taskforce to study challenges threatening the sustainability of the nation’s rice industry and will report its findings within two weeks, a ministry official said yesterday'.
Let's see what the government can come up with ...

Piloting
Besides the above (the main newsworthy items on rice production in Cambodia) what else topical has made the press? 
 
The Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 1) looks at the findings of an insurance programme on rice crops:
'A pilot project that offers micro-insurance to help rice farmers cope with the risks of flooding and drought is looking to build on the success of its first season by scaling up beyond three existing provinces. The Cambodia Micro Agriculture Insurance Scheme (CAMAIS), launched in the second half of 2015, aims to support local smallholder farmers by providing insurance payouts to those affected by severe weather-related events attributed to climate change. Rice farmers who join the scheme pay an insurance fee at the start of the growing season based on the size of their farm, type of paddy grown and technical tools used. In return, they receive consultation on farming techniques and get an insurance payout if their crop is damaged either by flood or drought.
...
According to Youssey [project manager of CAMAIS], 153 agricultural families joined the micro-insurance scheme during its first season, paying a total premium of $1,230 to insure 136 hectares of rice farms. At the end of the season, roughly 80 per cent of this collected capital was used to settle farmers’ claims, with the rest used to cover operational expenses and commissions for agents.
Around half of the rice farmers that purchased the crop insurance made compensation claims based on varying amounts of crop damage; however, only 52 of these claims met the criteria for receiving compensation, Youssey said'.
A lesson for all.

The Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 1) looks at the business of groundwater pumping. It's an increasing practice, exacerbating problems now the rains have been so poor.
'Extensive groundwater irrigation jeopardises access for shallow domestic water supply wells, raises the costs of pumping for all groundwater users, and may exacerbate arsenic contamination and land subsidence that are already widespread hazards in the regio, ...'.
On a sideline the Bangkok Post (Mar. 2) has one answer to the Thailand's water shortages: include local say of water management. 
 
Tractor politics as presented by Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 16):
'Local tractor dealers have reported strong sales of new equipment. Ngorn Saing, CEO for RMA (Cambodia) Co Ltd, exclusive local distributor of John Deere tractors, said his company sold about 300 tractors last year, a 30 per cent year-on-year increase. He projects similar growth in the coming year as farmers increasingly turn to mechanised farm help'.
Much is made of how tractors are assisting rice production. However it's probably cassava growing that's really pushing the sales. After all besides harvesting, there's very little use for tractors in small rice fields.

Sparks
Italians are afraid that Vietnamese interests will seek to grow and export rice from Cambodia bound for Europe using Cambodia's easy (and less costlier) access to the EU (Risoitaliano, Mar. 19). 
The article somehow makes a connection with what's coming from the Vietnamese press. Vietnamnetbridge (Mar. 10):
'However, Cambodian exporters can sell rice to the European market. The EU is the biggest consumer of Cambodian rice.
Why can Cambodia sell rice to the EU, while Vietnam, the second largest rice exporter in the world, cannot?
According to the Commercial Affairs Division of the Vietnamese Embassy in Cambodia, Cambodian businessmen can export rice to the EU because they can enjoy preferences'.
That said, the same source, 4 days later, warns of the threat posed by Cambodia as it gets better access to China. Though hardly having an impact on Vietnam's ability to export. So maybe not such a good source of info ...

The Mekongcommons (Mar. 17) has an extensive article on organic rice farmers in Surin, Thailand. Touching on the System of Rice Intensification and coping with climate change, it's a very read worthy article on pressures faced by rice farmers in the region and how to cope with these pressures.

The Bangkok Post (Feb. 27) notes that the recent auctions of rice are doing well.

And again, the Bangkok Post (Mar. 11) looks at the government programme of weaning Thai farmers off rice:
'Ms Prapatpon, 48, returned to school last month for a state-funded training programme designed to wean farmers off water-intensive rice and teach them how to grow other crops.
....
Going back to school was meant to give farmer ms Prapatpon fresh ideas and new strategies for survival on her farm in Chai Nat province. Instead, she said: "I can't apply any of this."
....
For farmer-turned-student Chaiyapoj Phak-on, the past two years have been a harsh contrast to the heady days of the previous government's income-propping rice-buying programme, which he called "the best time of my life." 
As usual there's more to be reported on politics and rice growing in Thailand. The Thai junta is in favour of an open society. As long as it toes the junta's line. From the Asian Correspondent (Feb. 24), this is the full article:
'THAI Prime Minister and junta head Prayuth Chan-ocha lost his temper at a Reuters journalist at Government House today, apparently over the news agency’s recent interview with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The reporter asked Prayuth about the cost of the damage of the rice-pledging scheme, which was implemented by the previous government under ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – Thaksin’s sister.
Prayuth said the number had not been finalized yet and would be announced later.
Then sparks flew.
“Why? You really want it now? You must tell Reuters to say [write] better yesterday [Tuesday],” he snapped, according to The Nation.
He then abruptly left the podium for his upstairs office'.
In similar vein: trying the tried. The Bangkok Post (Feb. 26) has a wide article exploring all what's wrong with Thai agriculture and trying to put the blame with one person. 
Oddly it's the Thai Rice Exporters Association which is assisting with the accusations that the previous government sold rice to China at lower prices than pledged, then stocked the rice and re-pledged it again to itself. 
Surely those accountable would be brought to court, why than use it to blame just one person?

Something different. Riceberry? That's the name given to (mostly organic) dark rice. Thailand rice exporters:
'Rice Berry is a cross-bred unmilled rice possessing dark violet grain, which is a combination of Hom Nin Rice, with well-known antioxidant properties, and Thai Hom Mali Rice, also known as Thai Jasmine/ Fragrant Rice or KhaoDawk Mali 105. Rice Berry contains three times more iron than other varieties. And not only does it contain a high level of antioxidants such as beta-carotene, gamma oryzanol, vitamin E and folic acid (folate) in itself, it also becomes soft and is aromatic when itโ€™s cooked, which is the outstanding trait of Thai Hom Mali Rice'. 
The Bangkok Post (Mar. 1) has a recent vdo on growing and market possibilities of riceberry. 

Silde
It may be marginal news, but it's impacts are to be huge. We are talking about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
What is the RCEP?  It supposed to be Asia's answer to the US-lead TPP. Does it serve the interests of Asian farmers? Grain.org (Mar. 17):
'Hot on the heels of the TPP, it is clear that RCEP will restrict seed saving and seed exchange at a time when, under the extreme pressures of climate change, farmers need more diversity in their fields, not less. Furthermore, it could increase their dependence on external inputs and raise their costs of production. Opponents of RCEP say that the trade deal could triple the current price for seeds.[iii] Trade agreements like RCEP should not give corporations monopoly rights over seeds, prevent farmers from saving seeds or promote GMOs—but that is what they do. These agreements are inherently biased towards the interests of corporate and political elites'.
That does not bode well for the future of small and sustainable (rice) farmers in the region.

Sam Mohanty on IRRI.org discusses rice prices and the dwindling of global rice stocks (Feb. 22):
'Despite the current stability in the rice market, there are reasons for concern about the direction of the market in the medium term (mid- to late 2016). The rice stocks of five major exporters (India, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the United States) continue to slide since reaching a peak of nearly 41 million tons in 2013 (Fig. 1). According to USDA data, the biggest drawdown of stocks in these countries is underway this year, with a 40% drop from last year, to reach 19 million tons by late 2016'. 
A lot of this stock selling has come from Thailand which, in hindsight, has been providing the global market with a hoard of rice enabling prices to stabilize: public goods used for the good of the public. 
Naturally, the Thai government has seen little return on their stocks and it could be expected that they would dwindle away. Has any other entity stepped forward to possibly avert a rice price explosion? No. 
He concludes:
'With limited Thai rice stocks in the warehouse, it remains to be seen how major exporting and importing countries react to such uncertainty [causes of climate change and/or El Niño]'. 
One worrying impact for the immediate future: farmers in Southeast Asia will not be able to step up to the plate if prices rise due to drought. The lack of water impedes any potential to expand production.
So what about farmers elsewhere? 
But looking at this in the longer term, things look better than before the 2007 rice price explosion. The market is not dictated by Thailand (Vietnam and India have a substantial role), there are more upcoming exporters (Cambodia / Burma) and major importing nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines have better domestic responses.

Cuts
Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 15) has been tallying sugar exports and reveals that in line with expectations, Cambodia's exports to Europe will disappear:
'New figures show that Cambodia’s sugar exports to the European Union fell by 94.8 per cent between 2013 and 2015, amid accusations of rights abuses and land grabbing in the Kingdom’s industry.
...
Meanwhile, Am Sokha, case coordinator at the Community Legal Education Centre, which is also a member of the NGO coalition, said the trade decline sent a clear message to the Cambodian industry to clean up its act'.  
On the plus side. The drought in Southeast Asia is pushing global sugar prices higher (Bangkok Post, Mar. 10). That said with the drought there's little opportunity to raise output to take advantage of higher prices.

The Bangkok Post (Feb. 29) on rubber: 
'Thailand is seeking to boost sales after prices tumbled to an almost seven year low in January as slowing economic growth in China weakened demand from the biggest consumer. Along with Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand agreed this month to cut shipments of natural rubber. Thailand has also agreed to buy rubber from growers at above-market prices'.
So with this concerted effort to protect rubber producers, it comes as no wonder that rubber exporters in Cambodia also receive assistance. 
Wrong.
The Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 7):
'Rubber producers said yesterday the government’s decision to amend the export tax scheme on natural rubber fell short of expectations and would do little to stem the losses of farmers as rubber prices hover near a six-year low'. 
At current prices, the tax amounts to a 5% levy, thus leading to pricing out of Cambodia's market.

Worse as reports the Phnom Penh Post (Mar. 17): 
'Cambodia's rubber industry’s woes have begun to crystallise after two major rubber plantations announced deep losses yesterday, attributing their downturn to high production costs and a drop in global rubber prices'.
In the meantime the past measures announced by Thailand seem at least in the short term to have pushed prices up, so reports the Bangkok Post (Mar.  7). However the short term gains may well lead to long term losses.

Cassava is leading the way. The Phnom Penh Post (Feb. 23):
'The tonnage of Cambodia’s agricultural exports increased by over 20 per cent last year, led by a surge in shipments of dried cassava chips, according to the latest Ministry of Agriculture data.
Total exports of 66 raw and semi-processed agricultural products – chiefly cassava, rice and rubber – amounted to 4.1 million tonnes in 2015, compared to 48 products with a total of 3.4 million tonnes a year earlier, the ministry said in its annual report on agricultural production.
...
Hun Ly Heu, director of cassava-exporting firm Drycorpkh Cambodia Co Ltd, said the fact that more farmers were selling their cassava despite falling prices was a sign of their desperation.
“Our market depends on orders from neighbouring countries and farmers could not wait for cassava prices to rebound due to their loan commitments,” he said, calling for the government to support farmers by setting a price floor on agricultural products'.
Bust to boom
Land politics in Laos: the case gone banana's. From the Southeast Asian Globe (Feb. 10) which reports on the province of Bokeo: 
'“The Chinese are renting 1,600 square metres of land for the equivalent of between $300 to $600 per year, which is roughly what the farmers would earn from this area if they cultivate the land. So they get the same amount but don’t have to work,” says Sompavong.
However, such deals always have their negative sides. For instance, the concession contracts usually do not specify that the investor has to clean up the land – often rice paddies – and return it to its previous condition after the contract ends'. 
However it's the accompanying massive use of pesticides which is proving a headache.
'Then, at the end of September, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests warned four Chinese companies for “excessive use of pesticides” and ordered inspections on the types and amounts of chemicals used at some of the banana plantations. The revocation of business licences was threatened if laws continued to be contravened'.
This comes hot on the heels of another China induced crisis in northern Laos: that concerning rubber plantations. These plantations mostly seem to be a proxy for China land acquisition. 
Now with rubber prices hardly worth tapping the trees, banana's are seen as the way forward. But at the same unfair economical advantages such as buyers monopolizing the crop (as the crop can only get imported to China) local government collusion, etc. 
A good starter on what's wrong in the north of Laos needs heed and read the recent study Falling Rubber Prices in Northern Laos: Local Responses and Policy Options.