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FEATURE ARTICLE - NOV/DEC 2006
Fair Trade Rice Makes Its Debut
You know about Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, and tea. Now ask your supermarket to start carrying the latest Fair Trade Certified™ commodity, Fair Trade rice.
Kyra Busch had a thrilling moment in a grocery store. She had just returned to the US after working with rice farmers in Thailand for a year and a half through the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), which connects students studying abroad with grassroots projects in their host communities. Kyra was browsing the shelves when she spotted a box of Fair Trade Certified™ rice.
“And there on the box was a photo of my friends in the farming communities,” recalls Kyra. “There were the people I knew, and their water buffalo, and the mill where I’d been working. It was so exciting. I could really feel the connection.”
Many cooks already know the sweet, nutty aroma that rises from a pot of Jasmine or Basmati rice. Now that Fair Trade Certified™ rices are becoming available across the country, you can also appreciate these varieties for the same reason that Kyra does—for the powerful impact they have on the lives of Thai and Indian farmers. Find out where you can purchase Fair Trade rice, and give new hope to farming communities while preparing healthy meals.
Issues in the Rice Industry
Most of the white and brown rice we eat in the US is grown on US farms. But most of the sweet smelling “aromatic” varieties of long grain rice—which are increasingly popular in the US—come to our tables from Asia: Jasmine and Coral from Thailand, and Basmati from India and Pakistan. If you’ve had a meal including aromatic rices recently, chances are that that rice was grown in rain-fed paddies and that small-scale farmers harvested it by hand. Unfortunately, what smelled so sweet on the stove may not have reflected a sweet deal for farmers. These producers are vulnerable to shifting prices and exploitative middle merchants, so they often earn far below a fair wage on which they could support their families.
For example, Kyra describes Thai villages in which all of the local farmers were dependent on rice mills whose owners didn’t always treat farmers with integrity. “At home you would have ten kilograms, but the mill owners would weigh it on their scale and say, ‘It’s only 8.5 kilos.’ The mill might promise in advance to pay farmers six baht per kilo, but the farmers would get their rice to the mill and then the mill owner would reduce that to four baht per kilo, which is less than five cents.” (US supermarkets charge consumers at least 35 times that price for Jasmine rice, starting at five cents per ounce.)
When farmers cannot make enough by growing rice to support their families, many are forced into debt, pushed to sell their land, or compelled to seek jobs in the cities as laborers, factory workers, or sex workers. In Thailand, for example, which provides 75 percent of the rice imported to the US, 68 percent of farmers in the northeast growing region are saddled with debts that are three times their annual income.
Rice farmers are further squeezed by the diminishing returns from chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In both India and Thailand, rice farmers have found themselves in a downward spiral when more and more expensive chemicals are required each year to bring the same yield from a plot of land. These chemicals also hurt farmers’ health and contaminate water supplies.
“In the past we could drink the water from the field,” says Prasong Seesa-Ard, a Thai rice farmer who became sick after using pesticides on his rice crop. “But then I noticed frogs, fish, and other animals were dying from the chemicals. That’s when I started to become afraid of what we were using.”
Adding to this pressure, Thai Jasmine rice faces stiff competition here in the US due to misleading labeling practices. Some US producers are labeling cheaper species of domestically grown rice as “Jasmine,” and research is underway to genetically modify Jasmine rice plants for cultivation in the US. A proposed Thai-US Free Trade Agreement seems stalled for now; but many worry that such a policy would devastate Thailand’s already-vulnerable farmers.
A New Fair Trade Product
You can improve the situation facing rice farmers by purchasing Fair Trade rice. Available in Europe for a decade, rice is now certified Fair Trade in the US by TransFair USA, along with coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, sugar, vanilla, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, and grapes. Fair Trade certification raises living standards for rice farmers by guaranteeing fair prices that cover the costs of living and sustainable production; an added premium that farmers can invest in development projects; credit against harvests to allow producers to maintain their lands year-round; and signed contracts that allow for long-term planning.
When small-scale farmers join forces in Fair Trade cooperatives, they are empowered to manage their own work in ways that benefit them and their communities. In the Thai cooperative where farmers had long been dependent on mills owned by others, for example, farmers used Fair Trade revenues to build their own mill.
“Any co-op member can weigh his or her own rice,” Kyra says. “The books are open, and it’s based on trust. Now every farmer receives a living wage.”
Fair Trade also means more of what you pay for rice reaches the farmers. Over 1,000 Indian farmers and 8,000 Thai farmers receive a living wage for their crops due to Fair Trade. Farmers in the Fair Trade system can also afford to take steps to protect the environment and make greater investments in their own villages. For example, TransFair reports that the Surin cooperative in Thailand, which grows Fair Trade Jasmine rice, has created a program to protect endangered forests from loggers, and helps provide supplies for local schools; India’s Sunstar cooperative, which grows Fair Trade Basmati rice, has been able to improve access to health care and to build raised roads and bridges that can withstand annual flooding.
In addition, the Fair Trade system encourages sustainable production methods. Fair Trade certification itself forbids the use of the very worst pesticides. About half of Fair Trade rice cultivation is already certified organic, and many other farmers are using Fair Trade wages to begin converting to organic growing practices. Organic agriculture reduces chemical runoff into the water supply, increases biodiversity of fields, and protects community health. Farmer Prasong, for example, noticed a difference when he began farming organically.
“It’s allowed him to have a livelihood and restored his health,” says Kyra, who accompanied Prasong on a US speaking tour in February. In the communities that have been impacted by the Fair Trade rice program, “you can see steady progress,” says Kyra. “These communities are beautiful. There are frogs, and flowering trees, fruits and vegetables growing. There is biodiversity instead of decimated fields with just rice. And you see all of the generations together, instead of just the elderly people and children you used to see when the middle-aged people had to leave to work [in cities].”
Where to Shop
Today, shoppers who want to help this beautiful vision come true for more farmers can already find Fair Trade rice on the shelves of some supermarkets. Alter Eco’s brands of Fair Trade Certified™ Thai Jasmine and Indian Basmati rices are currently available in California in Whole Foods Markets; in Giant Eagle stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland; and in many local natural foods stores. The Alter Eco brand is expanding, and Alter Eco’s Edouard Rollet recommends that consumers check the map at www.altereco.com to find out if Fair Trade rice has come to your neighborhood. Fair Trade rices from Ahaar Organic Foods and Woodstock Farms are also sold in some markets.
If Fair Trade rice hasn’t arrived at the stores where you shop yet, ask your grocer to carry it.
“It’s all driven by demand,” says Todd Larsen, Green America’s managing director. “Go into stores, and if you don’t see it, request it. Come in with the name of the brand and ask for it by name.”
Edouard at Alter Eco estimates that hearing from just three vocal consumers can get a store owner to stock a new Fair Trade product. In the meantime, two brands—Alter Eco and Ahaar Organic Foods—can also be purchased online. (See the Resources box below for tools and information about how to put together a Supermarket Adoption Team to talk to your grocer about Fair Trade products.)
Those involved in promoting Fair Trade rice have high hopes. “As people start to see Fair Trade certification as not just about coffee anymore, it’s only going to increase,” predicts Nicole Chettero at TransFair USA. “It will become part of people buying their daily staples.” Edouard at Alter Eco concurs; he’s been encouraged by all of the wholesale inquiries Alter Eco has received from restaurants and university dining services.
Kyra at ENGAGE has the highest hopes of all. She hopes thousands of consumers will have the experience she had—of seeing a box of Fair Trade rice as a connection to real people. For her, Fair Trade rice carries a message that “there are human consequences to participating in global agriculture.” When you buy a Fair Trade product, says Kyra, “visualize a person at the other end who grew this food.”
Choose Fair Trade rice:
• Alter Eco Fair Trade, 415/701-1212
• Ahaar Organic Foods, 925/365-0585
• Woodstock Farms, 800/877-8898
Help us get Fair Trade rice in your supermarket:
• Green America’s Adopt-A-Supermarket program (click on “Adopt-a-Supermarket”): Through our Adopt-a-Supermarket program, Fair Trade advocates are pressuring grocery stores in their local communities to carry Fair Trade rice and other Fair Trade products. Download our free Adopt-a-Supermarket guide and sign up a supermarket adoption team, and we’ll send you a free “I Shop Fair Trade” grocery tote.
• ENGAGE’s Fair Trade rice campaign (415/255-9355): Provides an organizers’ packet to help you bring Fair Trade Certified™ rices to your community.
• TransFair USA: The US certifier of Fair Trade rice, TransFair offers information about its rice program, as well as producer profiles, on its Web site.
See the impact of Fair Trade up close:
• ENGAGE and Global Exchange Thailand “Reality Tour” (Dec. 15-23, 2006), 800/497-1994 ext. 225: Want to personally experience the impact Fair Trade is having on Thai farmers? ENGAGE and Global Exchange have organized an upcoming Reality Tour, where participants will have the opportunity to interact with the Thai people through a homestay, visits with community groups, and excursions exploring the natural and cultural diversity of Thailand.