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.”
The seeds for Jazzmen rice were provided at no cost by Louisiana State University, whose scientists bred the strain to support American agriculture. Chin and his partner, Andrew Wong, note their business’s other benefits: jobs for Louisiana farmers and less fuel wasted on shipping Thai rice to the United States by sea.
“We’re creating new consumers for quality rice,” Wong said. “I use the example of Starbucks in Asia. Before, coffee was a low-consumption item there. Now you see different coffee shops all over China, all over Asia, because Starbucks introduced premium coffee to the market.”
The U.S. taste for Thai rice brings in $364.7 million worth of rice, almost all of it jasmine, into the country each year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The Thai rice market’s sales to the United States continue to grow, having more than tripled since 1999.
The second largest rice exporter to the United States, India, lags far behind, exporting only about $112 million worth of rice a year. Southeast Asia’s other major rice exporter, Vietnam, sends only about $19.8 million worth of rice a year.
Thailand’s advantage is its superb terrain, said Chris Deren, director of the Rice Research and Extension Center at the University of Arkansas.
“Like fine wine, the land and variety make the product. I can grow a Pinot Noir grape anywhere, but the good wine of that grape is from select locations,” Deren said. Thailand’s northeast is similar to the best vineyard terrain: low-yielding, dry and difficult to tend, he said.
Deren, a rice connoisseur, regards Thai jasmine as the “best in the world.” However, he has been regarded in some Thai activist circles as a “bio-pirate.”
Ten years ago, Deren led a U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored project that successfully engineered an actual strain of Thai jasmine — not a Chinese blend like Jazzmen — that can grow in the U.S. south.
This generated fears, stoked by BioThai, that Deren or other rice breeders would patent the strain and erase the hard-won Thai jasmine market in the United States.
But that has yet to happen.
“In fact, we vigorously opposed any talk of patenting,” Deren said, “Still do, though the point is moot now since it is released.”
So far, only one U.S. firm, Riceland Inc., has attempted to grow and sell the strain and only in small batches suited for test marketing. Deren freely concedes his strain is not superior to real Thai-grown jasmine rice.
Deren, who contends his love for Thailand is strong, said the negative attention is “disheartening.” Having first visited Thailand more than 40 years ago, he notes that farmers’ pay and living conditions have not grown nearly as fast as the country’s rice export industry, which is the world’s largest.
“Having an external threat keeps the focus off local problems and issues,” he said. “All the export activity [is] not very well evident in the farmers’ lives. The mills want to pay the lowest prices and squeeze farmers all they can.”