Growing demand for Thai organic produce in local and export markets has prompted the government to pursue a series of initiatives to encourage organic farming practices.
New support scheme
The state is launching a new program to promote organic farming by encouraging a reduction in the amount of new rice plantings and a shift from commercial varieties to organic strains, said Chutima Bunyapraphasara, deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives , to the media in early May.
One of the objectives of the program is to reduce the standard rice-growing area by 1 m rai (160,000 ha) in five years.
Farmers who enroll in the program can receive financial support to help them buy organic seeds, reduce their reliance on pesticides and build barriers to prevent contamination of nearby farmland.
They will also be eligible for subsidies of BT 2,000 ($56.30) for each rai (0.16 ha) of land they cultivate in the first year, BT 3,000 ($84.50) per rai for the second and 4,000 BT ($112.70) for third.
The government hopes that up to 400,000 farmers will participate in the program over the next four years and that an additional 600,000 rai (96,000 ha) of organic crops will be grown.
Up to 60% of the program’s crops will be exported, Chutima said, while the rest will be used to meet growing domestic demand.
Wider Sector Strategy
The shift to organic and higher-value production aligns with government plans – announced by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in early June – that aim to make Thailand a global food ‘superpower’ by two decades.
The government is set to introduce a set of reforms that would help transform the cultivation, processing and marketing techniques of the sector through new innovations, thus strengthening both agriculture and manufacturing, and promoting the food security and innovation.
The reforms will include a greater focus on agricultural cooperatives and support for producers to improve product quality, the prime minister said at a food trade fair in Chanthaburi province.
The agricultural sector is already recovering from a drought that reduced harvests in 2016. Agricultural production in the first quarter of 2017 increased by 7.7% year-on-year, contributing to a 3.3% growth in GDP and to a 6.6% increase in exports, according to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB).
With the outlook for the agricultural sector improving this year, the government expects food exports to reach $26 billion, up from $24 billion in 2016.
However, a focus on improving productivity in Thailand’s rural industries will be key to harnessing value addition in industry. Currently, productivity levels in the countryside remain below regional averages, despite increased commercialization and diversification in recent years, according to a World Bank report released in April.
Better land management practices, improved infrastructure, greater crop diversification and greater emphasis on programs such as organic production could help increase yields and reduce rural poverty.
Improved productivity and more specialized crops could have a direct effect on Thailand’s agribusiness and food processing segments, the report notes, further increasing agriculture‘s contribution to GDP – currently by about 11%.
Switching to organic production could also have a positive impact on public health, as reduced use of pesticides would reduce exposure to chemicals for rural communities and consumers.
According to the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, some 1,800 people die each year in Thailand from exposure to pesticides, and many more fall ill after ingesting or breathing in chemicals.
Although the import of pesticides has declined in recent years, from a record high of just under 200,000 tonnes in 2013, Thailand continues to be among the region’s largest sprayers, measured both in volume used and hectares covered.
work for it
Government plans to boost organic farming also come at a time when agriculture’s contribution to employment is declining.
According to the NESDB, agriculture’s share of employment has halved from 80% in 1970 to 40% today, as technology has improved and the economy has moved away traditional rural occupations.
Drought conditions and greater automation have resulted in the loss of an additional 1.3 million jobs in the agricultural sector over the past four years, according to NESDB data – a decline that has continued despite the recent increase production and was a major factor in driving the national unemployment rate from 1% at the end of 2016 to 1.2% in March 2017.
While farming is typically a low-margin business, higher returns on organic produce compared to conventional crops could help growers employ more workers, with the added benefit of fostering greater specialization in farming methods. of organic farming among the rural workforce.