07 October 2009

A Sack of Rice

Last September, my housemate came home from the superstore Costco with a sack of rice. We were all excited to have this seemingly endless supply—of jasmine, no less—for a cheap price. For the next four months, the rice sat prominently on the kitchen floor and was measured into puddings, curries and stirfrys for ten ravenous people. Looking back, I realize there is no way it was not Jasmine 105, the hybrid form of rice that has taken over much of Thailand’s farmland.

The Green Revolution of the 1960’s brought chemical agriculture to Thailand. The government encouraged the transformation from integrated, diverse farming to monocropping. These techniques were paired with Jasmine 105, easy to grow and in high demand by the market. Today, 95% of farmers in Surin Province use chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Rice, Thailand’s nutritional and cultural staple, has dwindled in diversity, the number of varieties shrinking by 45%.

Buying the sack of rice was our way of being self-sufficient. Living in a house without my parents for the first time last year was the first time I had to plan and shop and cook on my own. My friends and I prided ourselves on our frugality and self-reliance. To me, self-sufficiency meant being able to get everything you need on your own—knowing where to buy milk and how to get a job and who to call when your sink leaks through the ceiling.

To the organic farmers in Thailand, self-sufficiency meant human survival at the most basic level: relying on the food you grew yourself, making many of the things you needed, and eliminating the ties to the outside entities who would dictate how you carried out your livelihood. Self-sufficiency was a goal for every organic Thai farmer we talked to. One activist farmer had never sold his rice. Another bought only oil and cell phone minutes.

Most people depend on people thousands of miles away for the food they consume each day. I am dependent on the farmers who grew that rice, and all of the people who packaged and shipped and sold it. Most Thai farmers are also dependent. In 2008, an estimated 88% of Thai farming households had significant debt. In Roi-Et Province, we spoke with a group of farmers who were under contract to sell their crop to a large sugarcane and cassava company. Reducing the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers they bought from the company was their way of trying to escape the debt that forced them to sign contracts year after year. In another village, the company supplying villagers with chicks and buying back the grown chickens stopped providing them during the avian flu panic of 2004, depriving the villagers of their livelihood for two years.

Our mutual dependence in the face of agricultural globalization sunk in for me when, walking to my host parents’ farm in rural Northeast Thailand, I spotted a Cargill bag hanging over a bamboo fence. Cargill’s headquarters are 45 miles from my school in Minnesota.

Depending on an outside source, especially when it does not have your best interests at heart, can only expose you to problems. It can also allow you to knowingly or unknowingly ignore the realities of the things you are relying on because they are removed or far away. The Jasmine 105 I ate for four months was grown with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that depleted the soil and increased erosion rates. The chemicals polluted the water, and the degraded soil demanded more fertilizers, accelerating these processes. The people who planted and harvested my food likely have debt that is three times their annual income (if they are like 68% of farmers in Northeast Thailand) , and may have been sickened by overexposure to chemicals. Self-sufficiency, as one farmer here explained, demands awareness and respect for other people.

There are certain things we need to survive: food, water, shelter, energy. But of course, no one is self-sufficient. Even the hermit eating berries in a cave depends on the environment. That was something that these organic farmers understood absolutely. When the rains stopped too soon, “it’s like our hands and feet were cut off.” When the land was soaked in chemicals year after year, the worms disappeared and the land’s fertility ebbed away. We have to be dependent, and that fact can draw us closer to the earth and to each other.

But globalization and relationships between actors don’t have to, and shouldn’t, disturb self-sufficiency, at least in terms of our most basic needs. At each level, we should have a certain degree of self-sufficiency. Ideally, individuals would grow some of their food, repair their own appliances, or at least be able to function when the power went out. Communities, too, should have some self-sufficiency. They should be the source of their staple foods, depend on their own water, and provide their own health care workers, teachers and building materials. Finally, nations must grow food for their people to eat before they churn out exports and cash crops. This is why, as many have suggested, food should be excluded from free trade agreements. Food is more than a commodity. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes food as a fundamental human right (Article 11). If we “free” its trade, governments will be unable to protect not only their self-sufficiency, but their people’s livelihoods.

In Northeast Thailand, individual and community self-sufficiency through agriculture is growing. Three thousand farmers are members of the Alternative Agriculture Network, which works with farmers and the government to promote organic agriculture. In Yasothorn, the profitable Green Market has about 30 stands; in Surin, 80 families sell their organic food at a Green Market each week. One Yasothorn organic farmer explained, “We have rice to eat, freedom. We are director, manager, janitor. We eat everything we grow.”

Self-sufficiency is power. It is money under the mattress. It is food security and food sovereignty. We cannot and should not be isolated, but we must be responsible for the things we need to survive.

1 Hufford, Jonathan, et al. “Voices From the Margin: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Northeast Thailand: Surin Organic Agriculture.” CIEE Thailand, Fall 2008.
2 Hufford, Jonathan, et al. “Voices From the Margin: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Northeast Thailand: Surin Organic Agriculture.” CIEE Thailand, Fall 2008.
3 Kyotha, Bamrung. Exchange 9/22/09
4 Hufford, Jonathan, et al. “Voices From the Margin: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Northeast Thailand: Surin Organic Agriculture.” CIEE Thailand, Fall 2008.
5 “Fair Trade Rice Backgrounder.” Engage.
6 Yasothorn organic farmers exchange, 9/20/2009
7 1966
8 Alternative Agriculture Network exchange, 9/19/2009
9 Personal observation and Yasothorn Green Market organizers exchange, 9/19/2009
10 Yasothorn organic farmers exchange, 9/20/2009

Liz Aeschilmann
Carleton College


Andreu N. said...

Liz I agree with what you are saying about self-sustainability. In the United States, the mainstream ideology socializes us to think that self-sustainability is being able to “survive” without the help of our parents or any other source. That having a job to pay for all our amenities and necessities is self-sustainability, that we have made great strides to become independent. Nevertheless, your post highlights how dependent we are upon each other (the processes from food production and it finally reaching our hands) and how the ones who are truly the most self-sufficient are the ones who realize it the most.
In addition, I also agree that food should not be bound by international trade agreements. Especially since food like water is integral for the maintenance of life. If water ever becomes an issue debated like food, which is the direction it seems headed in considering the privatization of several water sources and its modern portrayal as a disposable product, then the future looks brim. Several people outside of farmers are suffering incredibly from the trade embargos on food and corporatization of water. Just like how the farmers did not know that the extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer was dangerous if we do not manage the way we use our resources their experience could be one that everyone in the worlds faces.

Ana Kostioukova said...

Liz, I enjoyed reading your blog since it is beautifully written and does a good job at explaining why self-sufficiency, at any scale, is important. Also I agree that fundamental human rights such as water and food should not fall under the jurisdiction of Adam’s Smith invisible hand. In other words, the idea that only people who can afford them should receive such things is frightening. Why do we need to put a price tag on things that are and have always been free? We shouldn’t encourage these types of systems with our unaware participation just because we are financially capable of ignoring their consequences.

Your thoughts also reminded me of an International Relations course I took at Tufts. It focused on interdependence of nations, specifically how the interconnection between countries will bring about a decrease of conflict and a higher quality of life. Although this idea made sense to me at the time, I see how it is flawed by my experiences in Thailand. In the discourse over world politics – all are inherently unequal. While interacting some nations will dominate and take advantage of others. The free trade agreements are a perfect example of this phenomenon, especially when regarding products such as jasmine rice. The only one’s profiting are people who already are at the top of the food chain.