Thailand: Banana demand outstrips supply

Kluai namwa, or cultivated banana, a tropical strand only grown in South and Southeast Asia, has long been an affordable, ubiquitous food staple for Thais, the same way apples are for Westerners. However, over the past few months, the rising price of the fruit has been a major concern across the country.

Media has reported an unprecedented surge in the price of cultivated bananas from 20-30 baht a bunch to over 70-80 baht. A shortage of the fruit from drought is the primary reason (besides seasonal influences such as the hike in demand during the Chinese Spirit Festival this week). The historic price hike affects households and related businesses; the shortage of what Thais often take for granted as a ubiquitous foodstuff is an economic and environmental issue as well as a case of food security whose impact is felt at the street level.

It was once easy to get a cheap bunch of cultivated bananas by just walking into any fresh market or random street vendor. Now at a fried banana cart at Talat Nang Linchee, a vendor needs to limit the number of pieces of fried banana from eight to six in a 20 baht bag. Some vendors simply had to stop after the price of wholesale cultivated bananas rose.

Earlier this month in Sa Kaeo, police had to break up a fight among a competing horde of buyers from Cambodia who came over to the Thai side to get a limited amount of kluai namwa.

"Bananas have never been this expensive," said one policeman in a report, adding that he saw bananas for sale at 200 baht per bunch -- an unimaginable price for something that once cost 10 times less.

Meanwhile, in a village in Chon Buri, a man had to install CCTV cameras in his orchards after thieves stole 30 bunches of bananas three times in July. At Wat Don Sai Temple in Prachuap Khiri Khan, thieves repeatedly stole bananas from the small plantation in the temple's cemetery. The abbot had to place a sign in front of the temple begging the thieves to stop.

The banana headache also highlights a more complex dynamic of supply and demand in international trade. As local consumers witness kluai namwa sold at historic prices, society is alarmed by the invasion of Chinese investors using Laos and Thai plantations to grow Cavendish bananas, or kluai hom. The Cavendish banana plantations have led to conflict over water and the excessive use of chemical pesticides. Local banana growers are becoming part of the international market. Local food once sold in fresh markets will be pinned with the law of supply and demand.

Growers and experts seem to agree that despite the "banana crisis", the rising price of kluai namwa is likely temporary. The drought has been contained, the rainy season is in full swing, and in the next few months more supply will flood the market, bringing down prices.

(1 Thai Baht=0.029 USD)

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