Global reputation at risk. First report in series exploring Thai rice production strengths & weaknesses.
Taking stock of rice woes
SPECIAL REPORT: Warehouse tour turns up sorry tale of pigeon droppings, grime and insect infestations
Spoiled ice from government stockpiles being stored in a warehouse.
The rusted metal door rolls upward with a groan, as if reluctant to give up its secrets. The light rays entering the dark cavern flicker with haze and dust mites, and our nostrils wrinkle from the musky odours that assault our senses.
Before us is a giant mountain of rice sacks, akin to a dragon' s hoard of gold beneath a mythical cavern. There is movement within the mountain, as loose rice grains roll here and there from the pull of gravity.
Looking closer, we see signs of life, as bugs and critters run to and fro in ever-shifting tunnels within the rice mountain. Pigeons coo from high up in the wooden ceiling, interspersed with the occasional splatter of fresh droppings on the rice sacks.
Nearby at another warehouse, the doors are filled not with sacks of polished rice, but rather rice paddy awaiting milling next door. Large nets stretch across the warehouse in an effort to deter pigeons, unsuccessfully it must be said, given the clear stains of bird droppings that can be seen across the piles of rice.
These two warehouses in Suphan Buri are like thousands of other rice warehouses across the country filled to the seams with government-purchased rice.
Some of this stockpiled rice - 150,000 tonnes of 5% white rice and 200,000 tonnes of broken milled rice - will be put up for auction by the government on Friday. Thai Rice Exporters Association honorary president Vichai Sriprasert has voiced fears over the quality of the rice, noting that exporters will not be given the chance to inspect it before bidding begins. He says the government risks destroying the global reputation of Thai rice if it floods the market with poor quality or rotten grain.
More than two years ago, the Yingluck Shinawatra government announced an audacious plan to boost global rice prices by controlling the country's supply with an offer to purchase every single grain of rice harvested in the country.
Pledging prices were set at more than 50% above market prices, giving farmers a huge incentive to boost production to benefit from the hundreds of billions of baht set aside for the scheme.
Rice exports on the other hand have nosedived, as the high pledging price has given Vietnam and other competitors a clear step up in the price-sensitive global rice trade.
Official rice stocks, meanwhile, have expanded massively to an estimated 17 million tonnes, compared with 7.8 million in 2011, as the Commerce Ministry has missed its targets in arranging buyers for the rice.
The delays and resulting spoilage not only mean greater costs for taxpayers, but has also raised questions among consumer groups about the safety, hygiene and freshness of local rice.
An inquiry led by Supa Piyajitti, a deputy permanent secretary for the Finance Ministry, into allegations of waste in the rice scheme found that consumers would do well to wash their rice more thoroughly, given the grime, dirt, mould and mildew that exists in many warehouses.
It may be that full accountability is near impossible, considering the scale and scope of the programme, two years and more than 500 billion baht in the making.
Ms Supa shakes her head. "The government and prime minister ordered the audit to be made at the same time at all warehouses, to help fast-track the audit and prevent problems of rice transfers during the inventory process," she said during a field trip to Suphan Buri.
"But the investigation isn't being done like that," she said.
Besides the fact that manpower issues have made simultaneous accounting impossible, officials themselves are failing to comply with the standards, either due to ignorance or bureaucratic inertia.
On this particular visit, a dispute erupted over basic geometry.
Ms Supa said the government ordered warehouses to maintain stockpiles in square lots, to ease volume calculations.
But instead, most warehouses maintain their rice stocks in the form of pyramids, including this one particular warehouse under inspection during the visit.
Officials from the Public Warehouse Organisation and the Internal Trade Department, the two agencies directly responsible for caring for the country's public rice stocks, debated Ms Supa over the pyramid-versus-square storage rule.
Each inspection of the stockpiles, meanwhile, theoretically must have the signature of six officials, representing the Public Warehouse Organisation, the Royal Thai Police, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives, the Internal Trade Department, the Finance Ministry and an agricultural expert.
Here in Suphan Buri, one of the country's premier rice-growing provinces, 81 mills are participating in the programme, with more than 100 other privately-owned warehouses used to store public rice.
Ms Supa said an inspection of the public stocks was needed after the Commerce Ministry last month reported that 2.5 million tonnes worth of rice had yet to be fully accounted for under the programme.
Critics of the rice-pledging scheme have contended that in addition to the fundamental flaws of the programme, internal controls are so lax that fraud and corruption are rampant, whether it be through "churning" the same lot of rice for multiple pledges, the illegal pledge of cheaper imported rice or the illicit substitution of newly pledged rice in favour of older rice.
A committee chaired by Ms Supa estimates the rice scheme has incurred financial losses of 220 billion baht for the three rice crops from 2011-2013, with losses likely to be even higher once accounts for the second crop for this year are closed.
Losses, however, should ease after the government cuts pledging prices starting in September by 20% to 12,000 baht per tonne for paddy rice, with a limit of 500,000 baht per farmer.
Ms Supa said losses for the existing stockpile were calculated using a simple formula of multiplying inventory volume by current market prices or investment cost, whichever is lower. Revenues are averaged together from the prices received from different sales transactions.
But she said the committee would recalculate the costs of the scheme using a weighted average formula for revenues, to help reduce distortions.
For instance, under the previous formula, one lot of 1,000 tonnes of rice sold at 12,000 baht per tonne, together with a second lot of 2,000 tonnes sold at 8,000 baht per tonne would show an average price of 10,000 baht per tonne, calculated by adding the sales prices of the two transactions and dividing by two. A weighted average approach for the same two transactions, however, would result in an average price of 9,333 baht per tonne, calculated from taking the revenue proceeds of the two transactions and dividing by the total volume of rice sold.
Prof Somporn Isvilanonda, a senior fellow at the Knowledge Network Institute of Thailand, said Thailand now ranks third in the world in terms of the size of its rice stockpiles, after China at 90 million tonnes and India at 30-35 million tonnes.
''Given the volume of rice in government stocks, I think it's near impossible for the government to properly care for the total inventory, whether in terms of quality or quantity,'' Mr Somporn said. ''State officials simply cannot be everywhere all the time.''
''The quality of rice in storage drops each day. The question is how badly our image as the producer of the world's best rice, an image built up over many decades, will be damaged,'' Mr Somporn said.
This is the first report in a series exploring the strengths and weaknesses of Thai rice production.
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accounting: the preparation of financial records for a company, organisation or person - การบัญชี
akin to: similar to, related to - เหมือนกัน, คล้ายกัน
arrange: to plan or organize something in advance - จัดเตรียม, เตรียมการ
assault: attacking someone violently - การทำร้ายร่างกาย
auction: a usually public sale of goods or property, where people make higher and higher bids (= offers of money) for each thing, until the thing is sold to the person who will pay most - การขายโดยการประมูล, การขายทอดตลาด
audacious: done with extreme confidence, despite difficulties, risks, or the negative attitudes of other people; showing a willingness to take risks - กล้าหาญ, ไม่เกรงกลัว
audit: to officially examine the financial records of a company, organisation, or person to see that they are accurate - สอบบัญชี
basic: of the simplest kind or at the simplest level - พื้นฐาน, อันดับแรก, สำคัญ
benefit: to get help or an advantage from something - ผลประโยชน์
bid: an offer to buy or provide something at a specific price - ยื่นเสนอราคา
boost: to increase - เพิ่ม
bug: insect - แมลง, แมง
bureaucratic: relating to government departments or officials - เกี่ยวกับระบบราชการ
cavern: a large cave - ถ้ำโดยเฉพาะที่มีขนาดใหญ่และอยู่ใต้ดินส่วนใหญ่
ceiling: the top inside surface of a room - เพดาน
competitor: a person, team or company that is competing against others - ผู้แข่งขัน, คู่แข่ง
comply: to obey a rule, law, agreement, etc. or do what someone asks you to do - ปฏิบัติตาม (กฎหมาย, ข้อเสนอ, ข้อตกลง etc.)
critter: a living thing -
debate: a discussion in which people or groups state different opinions about a subject - การอภิปราย, การโต้วาที, การถกเถียง
delay: causing to happen at a later time; happening at a later time than expected - การเลื่อน, ช้ากว่าปกติ
deter: to make someone decide not to do something - ขัดขวาง, ยับยั้ง, ป้องกัน
dispute: a serious disagreement - ข้อโต้แย้ง
dragon: a large dangerous creature in old stories that breathes fire and has wings and long pointed tale - มังกร
droppings: the solid waste matter of birds and animals (usually small animals) - มูล
dust: very small pieces of dirt that cover surfaces inside buildings like a powder - ฝุ่น
erupt: to start suddenly - ปะทุขึ้น
estimate: an amount that you guess or calculate using the information available - ประมาณการ
expand: to make or become larger - ขยาย เพิ่ม
field trip: a trip outside of the school or workplace that a person normally is at - การเรียนหรือเก็บข้อมูลนอกสถานที่, ทัศนศึกษานอกสถานที่, การศึกษานอกสถานที่
flicker: to keep going on and off as it shines or burns - วูบวาบ
geometry: the shapes of things and how they are related - เรขาคณิต
global: throughout the world - ทั่วโลก
gravity (adjective form: gravitational): the force that attracts objects in space towards each other, and that on the earth pulls them towards the centre of the planet, so that things fall to the ground when they are dropped - แรงดึงดูดของโลก
grime: dirt -
groan: to make a long low unhappy sound; a moan - เสียงคราง, เสียงครวญคราง, การคร่ำครวญ
haze: water, smoke or dust in the air that makes it difficult to see clearly - หมอกควัน
hoard: a large amount of something that someone has saved and hidden - สิ่งที่เก็บสะสม
honorary: given as an honour, without the person having to have the usual qualifications; not paid - ซึ่งให้เพื่อเป็นเกียรติ; กิตติมศักดิ์
huge: very large - ใหญ่โต
ignorance: a lack of knowledge or information about something - ความไม่รู้
impossible: something that cannot happen - เป็นไปไม่ได้
incentive: something that makes you want to do something or work harder, because you know that you will benefit by doing this - สิ่งกระตุ้น
inertia: moving slowly - ความเฉื่อย
infestation: a situation in which a lot of insects or animals are in a place and are causing damage or disease -
insect: any small creature with six legs and a body divided into three parts. Insects usually also have wings. Ants, bees and flies are all insects - แมลง, แมง
inspect: to look at something carefully - ตรวจสอบ, ตรวจสอบอย่างละเอียด
intersperse: to put one thing among other things or at various places; scatter, distribute - กระจาย, โปรย
inventory: the products kept in a shop, warehouse, etc., in this case, unsold cars - สินค้าที่จัดเก็บในสต๊อก
investigation: the process of trying to find out all the details or facts about something - การสอบสวน
issue: a problem that needs to be considered - ประเด็น
loose: not tied together; not held in position by anything or contained in anything - ไม่ถูกผูก, ไม่ถูกควบคุมตัว
manpower: the supply of people who are able to work - กำลังคน
massive: very large in size, amount or number - ใหญ่โต
meanwhile: at the same time - ในเวลาเดียวกัน
metal: a type of solid mineral substance that is usually hard and shiny and that heat and electricity can travel through, for example tin, iron and gold - โลหะ
milling: crushing or grinding something in a mill - การสี
miss target: to not achieve or reach the goal or target you wanted to achieve - พลาดเป้า
mite: a very small insect that lives in foods, on plants, or on animals - ตัวเห็บ, ตัวไร, แมลงหกขาตัวเล็กๆ
musky: smelling like "musk" a substance from animals with a strong pleasant smell used to make perfume -
mythical: relating to or existing only in myths; imaginary, or not real - ซึ่งเป็นนิทาน
nosedive: decrease quickly (like an airplane falling ("diving") to the ground "nose" first -
nostril: the holes in the nose - รูจมูก
note: to notice or pay careful attention to something - สังเกต
occasional: happening or done sometimes but not often - ซึ่งเป็นครั้งคราว
odour: a smell, often one that is unpleasant - กลิ่น
paddy: rice as it comes from the field after harvest - ข้าวเปลือก
particular: specific - เฉพาะ, จำเพาะ, โดยเฉพาะ
pigeon: a fat grey and white bird with short legs. Pigeons are common in cities and also live in woods and fields - นกพิราบ
pile: objects positioned one on top of another - กอง
polish: to rub the surface of something in order to make it shine - ขัดให้ขึ้นเงา
process: a series of actions that you take in order to achieve a result - แนวทางปฏิบัติ, กระบวน, วิธีการ
production: the process of making goods or materials, especially large quantities - การผลิต
purchase: to buy something - ซื้อ
pyramid: a shape with a square bottom or base and a point at the top - รูปกรวยเหลี่ยม, รูปพีระมิด
ray: a narrow line of light that you can see coming from the sun or a light - รังสี
reluctant: not very willing to do something and therefore slow to do it - ไม่เต็มใจ
reputation: the opinion people have about how good or bad someone or something is - ชื่อเสียง
rice pledging scheme: a government programme in which a fixed price, in this case well above the market price, is offered to rice farmers for their harvested rice - การจำนำข้าว
rice-pledging scheme: a government programme in which farmers sell rice to the government at a particular price, with the right to reclaim the rice if the market price goes higher - โครงการจำนำข้าว
risk: the possibility that something dangerous or unpleasant might happen - ความเสี่ยง
rotten: spoiled; decayed - เน่า เสีย
sack: a large strong bag for storing and carrying things - กระสอบ, ถุงขนาดใหญ่
scheme: a plan that is developed by a government or large organisation in order to provide a particular service for people - แผนการ โครงการ
seam: a line along which two edges of cloth, etc. are joined or sewn together - ตะเข็บ, รอยเย็บ
sensitive: easily influenced, changed or damaged, especially by a physical activity or effect - รับอิทธิ-พลภายนอกได้ง่าย
set aside: to keep or save something from a larger amount or supply in order to use it later for a particular purpose - สำรอง
shift: to move to another place; to change - ย้าย, เปลี่ยน
sign: something that shows that something else exists or is happening - สัญลักษณ์, เครื่องหมาย
simultaneous: happening at the same time - ในเวลาเดียวกัน,ที่พร้อมกัน
splatter: (of a liquid) to hit a surface violent and spread over an area - กระเด็น
spoil: when food is old and cannot be eaten anymore - เน่าเสีย, ทำให้เสียหาย
spoilage: when things "spoil" or the amount that was "spoiled", when things such as food go bad and cannot be used -
square: a four-sided shape with sides of equal length - สี่เหลี่ยมจัตุรัส
stain: an ugly mark left accidentally on clothes or the surface of something; blot, mark, spot - คราบ, รอยเปื้อน, รอยเลอะ
standards: a level of quality that is normal or acceptable for a particular person or in a particular situation - มาตรฐาน, บรรทัดฐาน
stock: an amount of something that you keep so that you can use it when you need it - ที่เก็บไว้ในสต๊อก
stockpile: to collect large amounts of things that may be needed - เก็บสะสมไว้ใน
storage: the putting and keeping of things in a special place for use in the future - การเก็บ
take stock: to spend some time thinking about a situation and planning before deciding what to do next; to do the inventory for a store and see what goods you have - โละสินค้า, ตรวจยอด
target: a particular number or amount that you want to achieve - เป้าหมาย
trade: the buying and selling of goods and services - การค้าขาย
transfer: moving someone or something from one place, vehicle, person or group to another - การย้าย
tunnel: an underground passage - อุโมงค์
voice: to express your feelings or opinions - ออกความคิด
volume: the space that something occupies and exists in or fills - ปริมาตร
warehouse: a large building for storing things - โกดังสินค้า, คลังสินค้า, โรงพัสดุ
woes: great problems or troubles - ความเสียใจ, ความทุกข์ร้อน
wrinkle: small folds in the skin, places where the skin goes up and down and is not flat and smooth - รอยย่นบนใบหน้า
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