Thai Agriculture at the Crossroads
By Nareerat Wiriyapong, The Nation, Thailand
Agriculture, Thailand’s most important economic sector, faces many
challenges as it enters the 21st century, including high rural debt,
technological change and increasing competition from major trade
Thailand is the world’s No1 rice, tapioca, and canned
pineapple exporter, and in the top three for sugar, rubber and prawns. It
is Asia’s biggest supplier of chicken, cut flowers, and a leader in
exports of fresh fruits.
But this success has its dark side.
Thailand’s farm sector is suffering from years of export-oriented
production, experts say. Millions of farmers caught up in the
export-agriculture machine remain deeply impoverished as they strive to
increase yields on small plots of land by borrowing money to buy chemical
fertilisers and pesticides. Over time, the chemicals resulted in extensive
pollution and land degradation.
New movements in response to
these deep problems are attempting to break farmers free from the current
export-agriculture trap, but these raise new problems and challenges for
Thailand’s 28 million farmers.
One response promoted by Thai
King Bhumibol Adulyadej as the " New Theory " is to switch to the
old way of growing several kinds of crops and using less chemicals.
“Self-sufficiency” is a new buzzword.
" There is a big shift
now in Thailand ", said Phrek Gypmantasiri, Assistant Director and
Chairman of the Agricultural Systems Programme at Chiang Mai University’s
multiple cropping center, and a supporter of the New
The alternative farming strategy was first suggested
by the King after the country’s economic crisis started in 1997.
Essentially, an ecologically sound concept of sustainable or alternative
agriculture, the farmer’s main goal is to grow enough food to feed their
The method relies on traditional and more
environment-friendly ways of cultivating the land. The King said
self-sufficient farmers should each grow several kinds of crops, raise
different types of livestock and have a fish pond. If they have any crops
left over, farmers sell them for cash.
popular variation on the new approach is for farmers to grow organic
foods, using little or no chemical pesticides or fertiliser. That lessens
their dependence on the banks. And it makes them more reliant on each
other. The theory encourages farming communities to improve marketing
skills through closer cooperation within the community and the private
sector, Phrek said.
The shift is coming about because of a
widespread predicament among Thai farmers. Boonsong Shinawong, a
53-year-old onion grower in Chiang Mai’s San Patong district, is typical
of farmers suffering from intensive chemical use and export-market
He needs pesticides to grow intensive crops, he
says. He can’t stop using them. " At the same time, I have to use more
fertiliser continuously to maintain production levels since my 2.5 rai of
onion field has been degraded" , he said.
The rising cost of
expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticide use has pushed him 100,000
baht in debt.
He’s not alone. On a national scale, 25 million
farmers, or 88 percent, are in debt. As of March 31 this year, outstanding
loans to the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC),
which provides most of the loans to farmers, stood at 288.45 billion baht.
About 15% of BAAC’s borrowers are in default: they cannot repay their
loans of roughly 43 million baht, or US$ 1 billion.
Kamphen, 46, a woman farmer in Chiang Mai province, is an example of
someone who has escaped Boonsong’s fate by adopting the new approach.
After only four years of shifting from chemical-intensive monocrop farming
to organic food, Suphan has already erased her debt.
income has grown to 70,000 baht, compared to 10,000 baht when she grew
just one cash crop. She sells only to local markets, rather than foreign
"Now" , she said, "organic food can be sold easier than in
the past as the people have paid more attention to healthier
While the King’s New Theory is taking root, still only
about 1 percent of Thailand’s farmers have adopted it. Meanwhile, the vast
majority, like Boonsong, remains caught up in export-oriented farming.
Debt continues to rise.
Another solution to Thai farm
problems, some say, lies in the latest crop production technology, called
genetically modified (GM) crops. Initiated by U.S. companies, GM crops
could help farmers improve yields while requiring them to use less
GM crops are developed from seeds whose genes have
been altered with the genetic characteristics of other species. That can
allow, for example, the plants to become resistant to certain insects and
herbicides, according to David Brown, agricultural editor of The Daily
Telegraph in London.
In theory, the GM crops would be cheaper
since they require less care. Farmers might not need to invest so much in
fertilisers and pesticides, and might get higher yields as well. The many
possibilities of GM crops could allow Thai farmers to compete in the
global market without being under the constant pressure of debt and
However, GM crops have become an international
controversy. In many countries, consumers are still reluctant to buy GM
food since nobody knows yet about its long-term effects, Brown said. In
Thailand such a controversy over GM crops led the government to stop all
experiments on the GM "golden rice," a species enriched with vitamin
But Thailand, like other countries, is unable to ignore GM
crops. That’s mainly because the US, the world’s major food supplier, has
spent huge sums to develop and introduce GM products.
also has adopted GM-crop technology. A number of unregulated GM crops are
being grown in China in addition to officially acknowledged experimental
ones, giving the country a powerful competitive advantage, Brown said.
This places more pressure on countries like Thailand to embrace this new
Vichai Sriprasert, president of Riceland
International in Bangkok – one of the country’s top 10 rice exporter
companies – said Thailand should proceed with experiments on golden rice
and continue to learn what GM crop technology can do. GM crops could help
improve Thai rice yields amid concerns that Thailand is becoming less
competitive, he said.
GM technology might help in response to
another significant challenge to Thailand’s proud leadership in global
rice exports. Vietnam, Thailand’s major rival in the rice trade, produces
twice as much rice per rai as Thailand. But its quality of rice is
inferior, said Vichien Petpisit, director of the botanical and weed
science division of the Department of Agriculture. The two countries have
Nevertheless, Thailand is feeling the
pressure of Vietnamese sales on its traditional markets, as Vietnam
In response, Thailand is now shifting its
focus to exporting high quality rice, according Vichien. The U.S., also a
major exporter in the world following Thailand, is the major competitor in
this market, he said.
The U.S. is an extremely tough,
efficient, and wealthy competitor. Because GM foods are increasingly found
on American farms, Thailand could be forced to introduce the controversial
GM technology to its farmers. It is not clear whether it would help Thai
farmers to get out of the cycle of impoverishment that has resulted in the
past from trying to raise efficiency to fight in the export of farm
None of the solutions to Thailand’s problems are
easy. David Brown questioned the benefits of organic farming and
self-sufficiency on the overall economic situation of Thailand. The
country still requires export income to revitalize its economy while the
environment-friendly approach discourages farmers from producing food for
export since they don’t want to fall in debt again.
Thailand, some see a two-tiered system of farmers developing. One would
continue to produce crops for export, while a growing number would adopt
the self-sufficient approach. For many, it is hard to escape the logic of
happy Suphan Kamphen’s successful switch from export farming to small,
organic, local-market oriented