BANGKOK — All it took was a taste test for Iraq to lift its months-long ban on Thai rice exporters, according to Thailand’s foreign trade department.
Last month a government delegation from Bangkok showed up in Baghdad to cook sample grains for the Iraqi Grain Board to assure its members of the rice’s quality.
Iraq banned the entry of Thai rice from private exporters starting last August over quality concerns, according to the Thai government, which has continuously defended the quality of its rice as good. The Iraqi government had already stopped purchasing rice directly from its Thai counterpart three years ago because of concerns about low quality.
Mr. Surasak Riangkrul, director-general of the Department of Foreign Trade, told reporters recently that the Thai government mission to Iraq had successfully convinced Baghdad to lift its ban on the imports of Thai rice.
“In our recent visit to Iraq, the Thai mission brought sample rice and cooked for involved authorities to show how good the quality of Thai rice really is,” said Mr. Surasak.
Prior to the ban in August, Iraq had imported 500,000 to 600,000 metric tons of Thai rice each year, making it one of the country’s major clients. The biggest importer of Thai rice is Nigeria, which brings in an average volume of 1.1 million tons per year.
Mr. Surasak added that there are chances Iraq may soon consider entering a government-to-government deal to buy rice directly, restarting a trade exchange that ended three years ago.
Iraq has not issued a statement about the visit from the Thai government. Mr. Surasak said Thailand has invited Iraqi officials to visit Thailand this month for further discussion and is awaiting their confirmation.
The lifting of the ban could at least give a small breather to for the Thai government, which has been struggling to meet commitments to a multibillion-dollar rice subsidy program by allowing it to sell off more from its rice stockpiles that have put a strain on its budget.
The subsidy program involved buying rice from local farmers at up to 50% more than the market rate while the government withheld its stockpiles from the world market in hopes of driving prices up.
It was a key part of the Pheu Thai Party’s election campaign in 2011. But it has not worked as intended.
As the government’s stockpiled grew, rival rice producing countries, including India and Vietnam, managed to boost their supplies and exports while major importers like the Philippines started to increase domestic production. The Thai government then became unable to sell the supplies it had been holding without incurring losses.
With more than $3 billion still in need to pay farmers who have participated in the project, the Thai government has no other option but to sell its stockpiles as quickly as possible.
In addition to Iraq, Thailand’s Foreign Trade Department says it is in discussions with the U.S. and several other countries to sell up to 1.6 million metric tons of Thai rice to help leverage its stockpile. -By Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol