Regular New Mandala readers may know that I have a keen interest in garlic. I have previously blogged about the overstated impacts of the agricultural trade agreement between Thailand and China on Thai garlic producers. So, I was fascinated to read the following report from The Nation (thanks Maylee) which suggests that the traditional flavour of Thai food itself is under threat from Chinese garlic.

The report raises a lot of questions, but at this stage I have just two.

If Thai garlic is so good – “Thai garlic is better in taste and medicinal properties, such as preventing cancer. Consumers want to buy Thai garlic” – why can’t it command a premium price?

And if it is so good, why is it “difficult for consumers to tell the difference” between imported garlic and Thai garlic?

(I cannot find a copy of the report referred to in the article. Can anyone help me?)

Thai food hit by garlic crisis
Imported varieties have replaced local ones, and the taste is just not the same

The Nation
March 2, 2008

Bad news if you are a big fan of Thai food and its traditional tastes: it might be harder to find in future. Your favourite dishes will still be available, but the traditional taste you are used to might not. The problem is not restaurants or chefs. It is all about the quality of garlic, an important ingredient in much of the cuisine.

“People today have fewer and fewer choices to eat garlic grown in Thailand, and this significantly affects food’s taste. One third of all garlic available here is no longer grown in Thailand but imported – a lot of it from China,” a study said.

“Thai-Chinese FTA: Impacts on Thai Society” was conducted over the past six months by researchers led by Kasetsart University’s Dr Detcharat Sukkamnerd. The Health Policy Foundation and FTA Watch group assisted.

“Thai garlic is better in taste and medicinal properties, such as preventing cancer. Consumers want to buy Thai garlic. But it is very difficult today,” explained Kingkorn Narinthornkul na Ayudhaya of FTA Watch. “Most garlic sold today is a mix of local and imported, due to the price factor. Thai garlic is significantly more expensive than that from China. Garlic from China is lower in quality of taste and medicinal properties, despite the larger cloves,” she said.

“Garlic from Cambodia, Laos, Burma and some parts of China is similar in size to Thailand, so it’s difficult for consumers to tell the difference. The point is, imported garlic is a lot cheaper than local garlic,” she said. Most restaurants and processed-food manufacturers – especially chilli-paste makers – are using imported garlic because it is cheaper and easier to find, Kingkorn said. “The problem is that consumers have much fewer choices due to the trade pact Thailand signed with China four years ago,” she said.

Thailand grows about 100,000 tonnes of garlic a year, mainly in the North, especially Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Mae Hong Son. It is a Bt1-billion-a-year industry. Most is for domestic consumption. Since 2003, Chinese garlic quotas have been imported with no tariffs under the Thai-Chinese free-trade agreement. Garlic imported beyond the quotas is taxed at 53 per cent.

“From our study, the impact is beyond expectations, especially for consumers, farmers and local agricultural businesses,” Kingkorn said. The flood of cheap garlic into Thailand has harmed garlic farmers because they cannot sell their produce for more than Bt50 a kilogram like before. Many have quit altogether. The area planted with garlic has shrunk considerably, according to Kingkorn. From 2004 to 2007, the area of garlic plantation dropped from 98,000 rai to 76,000 rai, and production dropped from 96,000 tonnes to 75,000 tonnes.

The impact on the local garlic trading system is worse, Detcharat said. “In the past, farmers and local businessmen bargained for the right price, depending on season. Now the pricing is in the hands of a few big importers,” Detcharat said. “This threatens food security and weakens local farmers and traders … millions of people,” Kingkorn added. The study cites the case of a garlic farmer in Chiang Mai’s Chaiya Prakan district, Kesorn Srisa, who said her life had been shaken. “Garlic is very important to my family. It is like cash to us, while rice is for daily food. I farmed garlic for decades. We survived despite its fluctuating price,” she said.

Kingkorn said farmers were trying to improve garlic yields by using fertilisers and chemicals, but this affected quality. “It is the result of signing a free-trade agreement without domestic readiness. We warned the government before, but it did not listen,” Detcharat said. Similar situations affect fruit and vegetable growers, the study said. It was said more imported fruit would give consumers more choice, and people would eat more fruit, Detcharat said. This has been found not to be the case.

“Consumers just switched from local fruit to cheaper imported fruit. Two problems lie in this case, one is safety and the other is the impact on local farmers,” he said. “Thai fruit exported to China is safe and is checked and documented. On the contrary, Chinese products are less strictly checked; just a few samples. It makes me doubt the safety of Chinese products in Thailand,” he added. Consumers need to be aware of this, Detcharat said.

He demanded a review of the Thai-China agreement to evaluate the impact of the trade deal. He said future agreements should be studied more thoroughly. “On a practical level, we found many claims of free-trade supporters – such as better prices for local farmers – not to be true,” Detcharat said. “In fact, we found Chinese importers control the market and set the price. Many longan farmers have switched to other crops due to unbearable prices.”