Agriculture in Thailand

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Thai farmer with a bundle of young rice plants
Agriculture in the rural areas of Bangkok.
Land cultivated by the Karen tribe in northern Thailand: controlled burn in the foreground and agricultural terraces.

The agriculture in Thailand is highly competitive, diversified and specialised and its exports are very successful internationally. Rice is the country's most important crop. Thailand is a major exporter in the world rice market. Rice exports in 2014 amounted to 1.3 percent of GDP.[1][1] Agricultural production as a whole accounted for an estimated nine percent of Thai GDP and 40 percent of the population works in agriculture-related jobs.[2]

Other agricultural commodities produced in significant amounts include fish and fishery products, tapioca, rubber, grain, and sugar. Exports of industrially processed foods such as canned tuna, pineapples, and frozen shrimp are on the rise.


Thai agriculture may be traced through historical, scientific, and social aspects which produced modern Thailand's unique approach to agriculture. Following the Neolithic Revolution, society in the area evolved from hunting and gathering, through phases of agro-cities, and into state-religious empires. Immigration of the Tai produced a distinct approach to sustainable agriculture compared with most other agricultural practices in the world.

From about 1000 CE, the Tai wet glutinous rice culture determined administrative structures in a pragmatic society that regularly produced a salable surplus. Continuing today, these systems consolidate the importance of rice agriculture to national security and economic well being. Chinese and European influence later benefited agribusiness and initiated the demand that would expand agriculture through population increase until accessible land was expended.

Recent developments in agriculture have meant that since the 1960s, unemployment has fallen from over 60 percent to under 10 percent in the early 2000s.[3] In the same period: food prices halved, hunger decreased (from 2.55 million households in 1988 to 418,000 in 2007) and child malnutrition have greatly reduced (from 17 percent in 1987 to seven percent in 2006).[3] This has been achieved (a) through a mixture of a strong and positive state role in ensuring investment in infrastructure, education and access to credit and (b) successful private initiatives in the agribusiness sector.[3] This has supported Thailand's transition to an industrialised economy.[3]

Agriculture in transition[edit]

Agriculture was able to expand during the 1960s and 1970s as it had access to new land and unemployed labour.[3] Between 1962 and 1983, the agricultural sector grew by 4.1 percent a year on average and in 1980 it employed over 70 percent of the working population.[3] Yet, the state perceived developments in the agricultural sector as necessary for industrialisation and exports were taxed in order to keep domestic prices low and raise revenue for state investment in other areas of the economy.[3]

As other sectors developed, labourers went in search of work in other sectors of the economy and agriculture was forced to become less labour-intensive and more industrialised.[3] Facilitated by state laws forcing banks to provide cheap credit to the agricultural sector and by providing its own credit through the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives (BAAC).[3] The state further invested in education, irrigation, and rural roads.[3] The result was that agriculture continued to grow at 2.2 percent between 1983 and 2007, but also that agriculture now only provides half of rural jobs as farmers took advantage of the investment to diversify.[3]

As agriculture declined in relative financial importance in terms of income with rising industrialization and Westernisation of Thailand from the 1960s, but it continued to provide the benefits of employment and self-sufficiency, rural social support, and cultural custody. Technical and economic globalisation forces have continued to change agriculture to a food industry and thereby exposed smallholder farmers to such an extent the traditional environmental and human values have declined markedly in all but the poorer areas.

Agribusiness, both privately and government-owned, expanded from the 1960s and subsistence farmers were partly viewed as a past relic which agribusiness could modernise. However, intensive integrated production systems of subsistence farming continued to offer efficiencies that were not financial, including social benefits which have now caused agriculture to be treated as both a social and financial sector in planning, with increased recognition of environmental and cultural values. "Professional farmers" made up 19.5 percent of all farmers in 2004.[3]

Unique elements of Thai agriculture include irrigation technologies which spanned a millennium. It also had administrative structures which originated with agricultural water control. Thailand has global leadership in production and export of a number of agricultural commodities, and its agribusiness sector includes one of the world's largest multinational corporations. There still remains potential for further large increases in productivity from known technologies.

Thailand is a leader in producing and exporting rice, rubber, canned pineapple, and black tiger prawns. It leads the Asian region in exporting chicken meat and several other commodities, and feeding more the four times its own population. Thailand also seeks to expand its exports in livestock.

Thailand is unlikely to rapidly industrialise except in concert with the People's Republic of China, and will remain one of the world's major agricultural countries in social, environmental, and economic terms for the foreseeable future.

Thai dairy industry[edit]

Thailand has a raw milk production capacity of 2,800 tonnes a day, or just over one million tonnes per year (2015). Forty percent of production goes to a school milk programme and the rest to the commercial dairy sector. According to the Agriculture Ministry, Thailand is the largest producer and exporter of dairy products in ASEAN.[4]

Thailand's School Milk Programme was established in 1985, in response to farmers protests in 1984 on unsold milk. "The principle [sic] objective of the National School Milk Programme is to support the Thai dairy industry, by providing an outlet for locally produced milk....providing milk to the young at an early stage, will...[develop] a taste for milk and hence a market for the future." [5]

Thai rubber industry[edit]

Thailand ranks as the world's largest rubber producer and exporter, producing around 4.3 million tonnes per year,[6] while consuming only 519,000 tons.[2] But the rubber industry faces a series of challenges. Alongside drought conditions in 2015-2016, Thailand has been hit hard by an oversupply in international rubber markets. Following a record harvest in 2011, Thailand increased rubber acreage by 45 percent. Other top producers in the region followed suit. Concomitantly, China's demand for rubber decreased by 10 percent. China is the world's largest natural rubber consumer, using 4,150,000 tons in 2013. At one point the price of the world's benchmark smoked rubber sheet dropped as low as US$1.27 per kilogram, or 80 percent below the record high of US$6.40 per kg in February 2011.[6]

Similarly, rubber futures in Shanghai have dropped by 22 percent and the export price of Thai rubber by 23 percent.[2]

To aid the Thai rubber industry, the government is spending US$471 million to aid small-scale rubber farmers cultivating up to 15 rai (six acres) of trees. This limit is seen as artificially low by Thai rubber farmers, as up to 80 percent own as much as 25 rai (10 acres). Consequently, in 2016 many farmers are felling their rubber trees to use the land for other crops, with the government pledging an additional US$181 million to support alternative employment for rubber farmers.[2]

Effect of climate change on Thai agriculture[edit]

It is projected that temperatures will continue to rise at a steady rate in every region of Thailand within a range of 1.2-2° Celsius. Annual rainfall is projected to decrease in the central area, but increase in the northern and northeastern regions. Volume of rainfall is projected to be around 1,400 mm per annum over the next five years.[7]

Shaobing Peng of Huazhong Agriculture University in China believes climate change is now affecting the seasonal weather in Thailand. "Global mean surface air temperature has increased by 0.5 degree Celsius in the twentieth century and will continue to increase by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius this century," he said.[1]

Climate change will have varying effects on Thai crops. Heavy rain may damage the roots of cassava plants in the north, while a decrease in rain might damage cane sugar and rice in the central region. Temperature and quality changes of water might lead to a reduction in the viability of livestock due to heat stress, survival rates of newborn animals, and immune system impacts.[7] Climate change has and will continue to harm rice yields. A study by Okayama University in Japan found that grain yield declines when the average daily temperature exceeds 29 °C (84 °F), and grain quality continues to decline linearly as temperatures rise.[8]

Already, due to the drought of 2015-2016, rice production has declined 16 percent from 19.8 million tons to 16.5 million.[2]

To adapt to climate change, the Thai government has initiated plans to introduce drought-resistant seeds. But these seeds are not reusable and can be costly to poor farmers who are not receiving direct financial aid. Government-supplied seeds are also limited, forcing farmers to obtain their seeds from private suppliers. In 2015 60 million rai (960,000 hectares) of rice paddies remained unplanted due to shortages of water, causing many farmers to resort to secondary crops such as sugarcane, cucumber, long beans, and tilapia aquaculture to make sufficient income.[1]

Use of toxic pesticides[edit]

In July 2012 consumer action groups demanded that four unlisted toxic pesticides (banned in developed countries) found on common vegetables at levels 100 times EU guidelines be banned. Chemical companies are requesting to add them to the Thai Dangerous Substances Act so they can continue to be used, including on exported mangoes to developed countries which have banned their use.[9] In 2014, Khon Kaen University concluded after a study that Thailand should ban 155 types of pesticides, with 14 listed as urgent: Carbofuran, Methyl Bromide, Dichlorvos, Lambda-cyhalothrin, Methidathion-methyl, Omethoate, Zeta Cypermethrin, Endosulfan sulfate, Aldicarb, Azinphos-methyl, Chlorpyrifos-ethyl, Methoxychlor, and Paraquat.[10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Lee, Brendon (2015-07-20). "Sci Dev Net; South East Asia & Pacific". Retrieved 21 July 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Luedi, Jeremy (2016-01-23). "Extreme drought threatens Thailand's political stability". Global Risk Insights. Retrieved 27 January 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Henri Leturque, Henri Leturque; Wiggins, Steve (2011). Thailand’s progress in agriculture: Transition and sustained productivity growth. London: Overseas Development Institute. 
  4. ^ Thongnoi, Jitsiree (2015-10-18). "Milking the system". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  5. ^ Suwanabol, Dr Issara. "School Milk Programme in Thailand" (PDF). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  6. ^ a b Phoonphongphiphat, Apornrath (2016-02-08). "Rubber estates may be way forward". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 8 February 2016. 
  7. ^ a b Supnithadnaporn, Anupit; Inthisang, Jirapa; Prasertsak, Praphan; Meerod, Watcharin. "Adaptation to Climate Change and Agricultural Sector in Thailand" (PDF). Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI). Asian Development Bank. Retrieved 2015-01-10. 
  8. ^ Kisner, Corinne (July 2008). "Climate Change in Thailand: Impacts and Adaptation Strategies". Climate Institute. Retrieved 29 Mar 2015. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Tai-pan (2014-02-26). "Problems with chemical pesticides still not solved. 1 in 3 farmers at excessive risk". Biothai. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 

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