Going against the grain
text size

Going against the grain

EXPLAINER: The government’s plan to sell old rice from the Yingluck pledging scheme has caused concerns over the adverse impact on public health and Thailand’s global reputation

The two warehouses hold around 146,000 sacks weighing more than 15,000 tonnes.
The two warehouses hold around 146,000 sacks weighing more than 15,000 tonnes.

The government's plan to sell old rice stored in warehouses for a decade in northeastern Thailand stunned some onlookers, leading to concerns about the adverse impact on public health.

Earlier this month Commerce Minister Phumtham Wechayachai, along with representatives of private and public organisations, rice surveyors, rice exporters and reporters, visited two rice warehouses in Surin province to sample grain stored there for more than a decade to test the quality and whether it is edible.

The grains were stored as part of the rice pledging scheme initiated by the Yingluck Shinawatra government.

The rice warehouses they visited were the Kittichai in Prasat district and the Poolphol Trading Co in Muang district.

The two warehouses hold around 146,000 sacks weighing more than 15,000 tonnes.

Q: Why is the proposed sale of old rice noteworthy?

Analysts and activists challenged Mr Phumtham and warned of the potential health impact from consuming old rice that may contain aflatoxins and chemical contamination, which could lead to cancer.

Academics cited cases in Japan in which rice was stored for up to three years provided it is vacuum-sealed against humidity and kept at a controlled temperature of 13°C, which was not the case in the Thai warehouses.

The commerce minister said the rice at both warehouses had been carefully preserved and was frequently fumigated using methyl bromide, while the warehouses themselves were completely sealed to prevent birds and rainwater from getting inside.

Opponents of the sale of the decade-old rice cited a study by a Japanese researcher that showed traces of a fumigant such as methyl bromide could still be present in the rice as a bromide ion after repeated washing, meaning it would be hazardous to people's health.

Critics argue this process cannot guarantee the quality or safety of the rice, even if it appears to be in "good condition" because it has been through cycles of fumigation for over a decade.

If the rice requires fumigation every two months, this means the rice has been through 60 fumigation cycles.

In addition, warehouses are distributed all over the country and rice inspection is carried out randomly. As a result, retail traders have noticed old rice mixed with new rice in certain products.

Mr Phumtham said the government will send samples of the old rice for lab tests by an independent body to ensure its safety.

Q: Will the planned sale affect confidence in Thai rice?

If tests find traces of aflatoxins, some academics have urged the government to scrap the export scheme to Africa because it would pose a public health threat and undermine the country's reputation in the global market.

The scholars suggested the rice is unsafe for consumption by humans or animals, and should be used to produce alcohol instead.

Q: Is there a political motive behind the rice sale?

Some critics are arguing the planned rice auction is a political ploy to help secure Yingluck's return by showing that grains from the scheme are safe and can earn money.

The Yingluck rice pledging scheme ran from 2011 to 2014 and was the largest rice market intervention in Thai history.

Yingluck fled the country in 2017 just before the Supreme Court sentenced her to five years in prison for failing to stop fake and corruption-plagued government-to-government sales of rice as part of the pledging scheme.

Q: When will the rice auction take place?

Krishnaraksa Jaidee, acting president of the Public Warehouse Organization, said the agency planned auctions of the pledged rice between the end of May and the beginning of June.

The Kittichai warehouse received 258,106 sacks of rice weighing 26,094 tonnes under the scheme on Jan 3, 2014 (with 11,656 tonnes remaining), while Poolphol Trading Co received 94,637 sacks weighing 9,567 tonnes on March 14, 2014 (with 3,356 tonnes remaining).

The stored rice could fetch 18 baht per kilogramme if sold.

Q: What are the auction procedures?

The auction process starts with drafting the terms of reference (TOR), checking the qualifications of bidders and extending invitations to entrepreneurs to bid on the rice. The winner must sign the contract within 15 days.

Mr Phumtham said the bidding is expected to generate revenue of around 270 million baht and reduce storage costs, which are as high as 380,000 baht per month.

Q: What was the estimated damage caused by the rice pledging scheme?

The scheme under the Yingluck administration is alleged to have cost taxpayers more than 500 billion baht, as the rice was purchased at about 50% above the market price.

After the scheme ended in May 2014, there was roughly 18.6 million tonnes of rice remaining.

On Sept 10, 2018, the Prayut administration was able to sell 17.8 million tonnes or 95.7%, generating revenue of 146 billion baht.

Do you like the content of this article?