Rice production in Thailand
Thailand has a strong tradition of rice production. It has the fifth-largest amount of land under rice cultivation in the world and is the world's second largest exporter of rice. Thailand has plans to further increase its land available for rice production, with a goal of adding 500,000 hectares to its already 9.2 million hectares of rice-growing areas. The Thai Ministry of Agriculture expects rice production to yield around 30 million tons of rice for 2008. The most produced strain of rice in Thailand is jasmine rice, which is a higher quality type of rice. However, jasmine has a significantly lower yield rate than other types of rice, but it also normally fetches more than double the price of other strains in a global market.
Pre-World War II history
Until the 1960s, rice planting in Thailand consisted mainly of peasants farming small areas and produced modest amounts of rice (subsistence agriculture). The Chao Phraya River delta was the hub of rice production. Agriculture constituted a large portion of the total production of Thailand and most Thais worked on farms. The extreme focus on agriculture arose for two main reasons, the vast amount of land available for farming and the government's policies to clear more land and protect peasants' rights. The government helped peasants gain access to land and protected them from aristocratic landlords. Due to the government's stance, urban merchants were unable to gain much control over the Thai rice industry. The government concerned itself with protecting farmers and not with overall production. As a result, Thailand was relatively self-sufficient, resistant to government invention, mobile, and egalitarian. Most rice farmers owned their own land and exchange labor between farmers was common. Rice production normally was not much more than the farmers needed to survive on.
Post-World War II history
As Europe was starting to come together on many issues including agricultural policy (including price supports), Thailand was starting to protect its rice farmers less and work with the merchants more. The government started worrying about increasing production and exploiting more surplus from the rice industry. Thailand turned to the merchants to put on this pressure and it worked very well.
The government wanted to promote urban growth and one of the ways it accomplished this was by taxing the rice industry and using the money in big cities. In fact, during 1953, tax on rice accounted for 32 percent of government revenue. The government set a monopoly price on exports, which increased tax revenue and keep domestic prices low for Thailand. The overall effect was a type of income transfer from farmers to the government and to urban consumers (who purchased rice). These policies on rice were called the "rice premium," which was used until 1985 when the government finally gave into political pressure. The shift away from protecting the peasant rice farmers by the government moved the rice industry away from the egalitarian values that were enjoyed by farmers to more of a modern-day, commercial, profit-maximizing industry.
The Thai government had strong incentives to increase rice production and they were successful in most of their plans. The government invested in irrigation, infrastructure, and other pro-rice projects. The World Bank also provided finance for dams, canals, locks, ditches, and other infrastructure in the Greater Chaophraya Project. These policies helped lead rice land to increase from 35 million to 59 million rai from 1950s to 1980s. The graph on the next page, Figure 2, shows the increased paddy rice production in Thailand from 1961 to 2007. The rice production has about tripled in terms of total paddy rice produced. While Thailand's rice production has not increased every year, which is not to be expected, one can see a trend line for steady significant increases since the 1960s.
A large portion of this rapid expansion was due to increased production of rice in northeast Thailand While in the past, central Thailand was the main producer of rice, northeast Thailand quickly caught up to a comparable amount of production. This was in part due to the new road systems between northeast Thailand and the shipping focused cities on the coastline. The villages that had a significant portion of rice production were also changing as farmers went from more subsistence practices to mostly wage labor (exchange labor also virtually disappeared). Cows were being replaced for tractors to work on the farm and irrigation technology was updated in most villages. The green revolution was just starting to spread among the world’s agricultural industries. Rice farmers and merchants took advantage of new rice varieties, strains, fertilizers, and other technological advances. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was also disseminating knowledge, technology, new rice strains, and other information to rice producers in Thailand. From the 1950s to 1970’s rice production per unit of land increased by almost 50 percent.
By the end of 2012, Thailand had around 17 million tonnes of milled rice in stockpiles. It plan export a large part of it through government-to-government contracts in 2013. It lost the spot of Top Rice exporting country in 2012 been beaten by India and Vietnam. 
Effects on low-income farmers
While all of these advances helped improve overall production of rice in Thailand, many low-income farmers in Thailand were left worse off. Many peasants were unable to hold onto to their land that they used to harvest rice on and had to become tenants to survive. The government would always expect tax revenue, even during a bad year, and this pushed many low-income farmers even closer to the margin. New technologies also pushed up the entrance cost of rice farming and made it harder for farmers to own their land and produce rice. Farmers that already had somewhat large scale operations or could afford all the new chemicals, rice strains, and tractors benefited greatly while the normal peasant was turned from a land owning rice producer to a manual laborer on others land. To examine the efficiency of rice fields the graph shown in Figure 4 displays the increased productivity of the land. The yield of paddy rice in Thailand is clearly rising since 1961 in the graph. The yield is measured by dividing tons of rice produced by hectares of rice land.
Importance of Rice
Rice has many important roles in Thai society from food to work. Rice uses over half of the farmable land area and labor force in Thailand . It is one of the main foods and sources of nutrition for most Thai citizens. Rice is also of the main components of Thai exports. The Thai rice industry also faces a few big threats. According to Setboonsarng the top three threats are, “(i) increase in competition in the international market; (ii) growing competition with other economic activities that increases the cost of production, especially the labour cost; and (iii) degradation of ecological conditions. Rice research has to address these challeneges.” As the world becomes “flatter,” and the rice production around the world become more competitive, it becomes harder for Thailand to keep its competitive advantage and the margins Thai rice producers have been used to. For the second threat, the modernization of Thailand has led to an increase in wealth and the cost of labor, making it more expensive for rice farmers that use cheap manual labor. Third, the massive amount of land used for rice can have long term adverse effects on the yields of the land.
Rain-making ceremonies are common for rice farmers in Thailand. One such ceremony happens in Bangkok involves the lord of the Royal Plowing Ceremony throwing rice seeds as he walks around the Grand Palace as the Crown Prince of Thailand watches. Another tradition that is common to central Thailand is a Cat Procession. This involves villagers carrying a cat around and throwing water at it, due to the belief that a “crying” cat brings a fertile rice crop.
Thailand has at times considered creating a rice cartel with Vietnam, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. The purpose would be to control production and set prices similar to the OPEC cartel that controls production of oil. Thailand had even submitted a proposal to the other countries for the organization but it was retracted in 2008. Many analysts believe that such a price setting organization will not work due to the inability of cooperation between all of the countries and their lack of control over farmer’s production. Thailand is now looking at creating a more forum based international organization to discuss supplies and yields of rice. Noppadon Pattama, the foreign minister of Thailand, wants to call the forum the Council on Rice Trade Cooperation and was planning, as of May 2008, to invite; China, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam. Pattama has also said the potential new international forum will not replicate any of the work done by the International Rice Research Institute. The Institute was formed in 1960 to, “…improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure that rice production is environmentally sustainable” in the Southeast Asian region.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rice farming in Thailand.|
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- Evenson, Robert E., Robert W. Herdt, and Mahabub Hossain. Rice Research in Asia: Progress and Priorities. Wallingford, UK: CAB International in association with the International Rice Research Institute, 1996.
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