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There’s a deep irony to all the talk about the global food crunch (they laugh at our “credit crunch” here, you can’t eat credit) portending dark deeds in Thailand. This country is hardly in danger of running out of rice, short term or long term. In fact, it supplies the international market with 30% of its rice. This eclipses many countries, such as China, that produce far more rice but have limited exposure to global markets due to export curbs. Thailand, despite the dire talk of rice price hikes, probably stands to reap huge profits from the Food Crunch.
What’s more, Thailand could produce even more rice than it does. Large parts of its rice fields are underproductive, in part because they are not properly irrigated. Many fields that could produce multiple crops a year produce just one or two. Price controls and other government mucking about contribute to the low-productivity. But, if I were asked, I’d probably say an even bigger role is played by the heat here. It’s really, really hot in the summer. And it’s summer right now. It takes a lot of baht to motivate Thai farmers to work in the summ er. Leisure in this kind of weather is a highly prized commodity. But if prices get high enough, the farmers will dismount from the hammocks and get to planting.
So if Thailand has plenty of rice and could produce more if the price was right, what’s all the fuss about? To understand the issue, you have to realize that in this part of the world rice quite literally has a religious dimension. In the mornings you can find women on the streets given rice to monks to “make merit”–which is Buddhist for scoring religious points. At images of the Buddha throughout Thailand, people leave offerings of rice. High prices are seen as interfering with the religious obligations of the people. Keeping rice prices low is a way of staying right with Buddha.
It’s also pretty much part of every meal. So imagine, if you will, if $117 oil meant we had to cancel Sunday church services and Saturday bbqs. Rice, in Thailand, is food plus religion. And when it gets expensive, dangerous forces can be unleashed.
–John Carney is probably eating too much rice on his vacation in Thailand.