05 October 2011

Sticky Rice in the Northeast

While at my university in Los Angeles, California, I occasionally order one of my favorite desserts—sweet mango sticky rice—from the numerous Thai restaurants in the neighborhood. Until I came to Thailand to participate in CIEE’s Globalization and Development study abroad program, this dish constituted the extent of my knowledge about this dense, chewy variety of rice. I never imagined sticky rice would be used for anything else.

I could not have been more wrong.

Sticky rice, or khaaw nieo in Thai, is a staple of Northeastern Thailand’s traditional diet. It grows well in the region (henceforth referred to as “Isaan”) and is typically consumed by rolling the rice into a ball with the hands and using it to pick up other foods in the meal. Unlike jasmine rice—a “standard” variety globally—sticky rice is steamed rather than boiled. It is glutinous and also comes in a number of colors, such as red, black, and white.

The Unit One Trip of the program, which focused on human rights and environmental issues surrounding agriculture and food, brought the CIEE students to numerous villages in Yasothon Province. We learned from organic farmers and community organizers about the significance of national agricultural policies, the effects of globalized technologies on farming practices, and the importance of food in Thai culture.

As Leedom Lefferts writes in his work “Sticky Rice, Fermented Fish, and the Course of a Kingdom,” Isaan people “make references to khaaw nieo . . . as mechanisms for the assertion of regional pride and ethnic group identity and cohesion”. Rice farming, likewise, is more than a profession; it is a way of life, oftentimes determining the activities of whole villages during planting and harvesting seasons.
Thus, when the government began to support monocropping of the genetically engineered rice variety Jasmine 105 in order to integrate Thailand’s national agriculture into the global economy, it was an affront to the very cultural foundations of Isaan people.

“Since 1960s, many developing countries worldwide, including Thailand, began embarking on the Green Revolution as the central goal of their agricultural development,” states Vitoon Panyakul, author of the report “Thai Rice: the Rice of Freedom”. He elaborates, “When farmers began adopting the improved varieties, they also had to adopt the rice farming technology package developed for the Green Revolution. This includes application of chemical fertilizers, intensive pest control with pesticides, and efficient water management through irrigation.”

As Supanee Taneewuth writes in Free trade Agreements and their Impact on Developing countries: The Thai Experience, “the government . . . developed high yielding varieties and hybrids with no concern for the impact on long-term sustainability. Farmers lost control of managing their own seed. Farmers have to buy seed, which was added to chemical fertilizer and pesticides as part of the input burden on farmers.” These hybrid seeds have to be bought every year, and the amount of chemical additives must constantly be increased as soil quality degrades with its continued use. With almost all of the seeds trade controlled by transnational corporations, the Green Revolution and its agricultural reforms have deprived farmers of the traditional wisdom, self-sufficiency, and autonomy they once took pride in.

In response, many Thai farmers have joined organic movements and grassroots organizations to resist and advocate against national policies promoting “improved” agriculture. They are renouncing the farming practices that alienated them from their traditional livelihoods, caused extensive environmental and health problems, and marginalized their indigenous food preferences.

After relishing red khaaw nieo at least twice a day during the week of the Unit One homestay, after seeing the deep connection my host family had with their rice fields and native foods, I can fondly declare:

Long live sticky rice.

Mariko Powers
Occidental College


Charlotte Kaye, CIEE Service-Learning Santiago said...

I think it is really cool that Thai farmers are taking a stand against mono-cropping. It is almost as if Thai rice farmers are skipping a step in agricultural and social development. At least in the United States, the agricultural process seemed to go, local farming, surplus farming, mono-cropping, and now finally back to local organic farming. The Thai farmers who are standing up against mono-cropping, which is depleting the soil, have a brilliant foresight and understanding the land's needs and their own, unlike the United States and many other developed countries that must go through the process of surplus farming and mono-cropping before they come to the realization that local is happy and healthier for everyone involved.

Amelia Evans said...

Concurrent with the movement to organic, there is the movement to return to using traditional, local seed varieties. (Mariko and I stayed with the proclaimed “doctor” of local seed varieties in Yasothan; it could be expected that he had the best red sticky rice around…) Instead of the Thai government helping farmers to move away from mono-cropping Jasmine 105, the Rice Department only releases very few seeds of any given local variety at a time. Such a small batch of seeds makes it very difficult to start growing local varieties successfully. Unfortunately this is only one example of how the Thai government—like governments all around the world—shows that it is failing to recognize the importance and validity of the anti-Green Revolution movement. According to our host father (the “doctor”), however, the Rice Department is looking into the health benefits of different local varieties. Hopefully the results of the research will push the government into supporting small-scale farmers make the move to growing locally.

Ariel Chez said...

Mariko, I completely agree that cow neo is a great legacy of the Issan region. I also agree that the green revolution was responsible for the loss of many local varieties of rice, since the GMO’s and chemical fertilizers work together to increase yield, and thus the increased use of these agricultural practices led to the loss of many types of cow neo. Thus it is inspiring that many villagers in Yasothan are taking control back in their own hands and trying to get a hold of local varieties from seed banks, and are even working on introducing their organic rice to the consumer market. One interesting point of this is that many of the rice processing factories are unwilling to process anything but Jasmine 105 and the GMO version of cow neo. The AAN is working on processing their own rice, and I believe this is going to contribute to their success as an organic community both culturally and economically. Perhaps the way to sustain this kind of movement is to remove the middleman that makes growing local and organic varieties impossible, and instead the community can take it in their own hands and become the middleman. Not only will this ensure that the organic farmers can sustain their families by being organic, but will also diversify the local economy with an influx of processing and other types of jobs.