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Rice wars: Has the US pirated Thailand's finest rice?

Why Thais fear US “bio-piracy” of their Jasmine rice.

Thailand, Rice
Thai workers dry rice grains at rice mill factory. (Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — In rice-reverent Thailand, the “fragrant jasmine” species is considered the champagne of grains. Prepared correctly, it fluffs exquisitely, clings to the fork and smells faintly of flowers.

Like champagne, it is deigned that only a select region — about five sun-baked provinces in Thailand’s northeast — can grow the best jasmine rice crops. Much of it ends up on ships bound for the United States, which imports more rice from Thailand than any other country.

But Thai officials are warning of an American threat to their exclusive export.

After more than a decade of research, scientists at Louisiana State University have genetically engineered a jasmine rice replica suited to grow in the U.S. south. As of last year, that breakthrough is sold by a trio of New Orleans entrepreneurs as “Jazzmen Rice.” Each package bears the bug-eyed likeness of jazz legend Louis Armstrong blowing into a trumpet.

To Thai agricultural purists, this is akin to bottling sparkling wine in Detroit and deeming it “Shampayne.”

“It’s unacceptable,” said Withoon Liamchamroon, director of the BioThai farmers’ rights foundation. “It absolutely misleads the consumer.” A petition against so-called “bio-piracy” circulated by the group goes further. “Since our ancestors began to grow jasmine rice,” the petition quotes a Thai rice grower as saying, “it has belonged to Thai farmers ... the misuse of its name is a shameless theft.”

“We knew there would be some uncomfortable feelings,” said George Chin, a co-founder of Jazzmen rice. “But we aren’t out to go directly against Thai jasmine.”

Can Louisiana farmers grow rice as well as northeastern Thais, who’ve produced jasmine for generations? “It’s very similar in quality,” Chin said.

Fears that the New Orleans-based business could lead a U.S. takeover of Thailand’s cherished rice industry led the Thai commerce and agriculture ministries to sponsor a genetic study of Jazzmen rice. Their conclusion: It’s actually a cross-breed between Chinese and native U.S. breeds with aromatic properties.

“That’s exactly right,” Chin said. “It’s not Thai jasmine. It’s a premium, aromatic rice that just happens to be grown here in the U.S.A.”

The Thai government analysis concluded that Jazzmen’s taste is inferior. “I haven’t yet tried it,” Withoon said. “But the information I’ve received indicates it’s not nearly as fragrant.”

A 25-pound of Jazzmen rice costs about $20; Costco sells Thai-grown jasmine rice for roughly the same price. About 500 U.S. stores, mostly Asian food markets, carry the rice. They plan to boost production from 6,000 pounds to more than 10,000 pounds this year. “We have people eating our rice that have never had the Thai jasmine before and they really love it,” Chin said. “If anything, we’re opening up the market for jasmine rice.”

Thai farmers’ greatest concern, he said, is that Americans will stop buying authentic Thai jasmine rice, upending their livelihood and leaving them destitute.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Withoon said. “But it looks inevitable.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/110118/thailand-jasmine-rice-new-orleans