Write-up taken from the IRRI's Rice Almanac (2013):
Thailand is a peninsular country in Southeast Asia sharing boundaries with Myanmar in the west, Laos and Cambodia in the northeast, and Malaysia in the south. The South China Sea touches the east coast, while the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea border the west coast. Thailand has a land area of 51 million ha, of which one-third is cultivated for annual crops and about 7% is under permanent crops.
Four seasons are recognized: southwest monsoon from May through September, a transition period from the southwest to the northeast monsoon during October, the northeast monsoon from November through February, and a premonsoon hot season during March and April.
Temperatures in the Central Plain during the rainy season (May to November) average 27 °C, with only 8–10 °C between the daily minimum and maximum. There is a brief cool period (December and January) with temperatures as low as 2–3 °C in the northern highlands.
Economic growth in nonagricultural sectors over the past three decades greatly reduced the relative importance of agriculture as a contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) and export earnings. However, agriculture remains a significant economic activity in rural Thailand. In spite of having an industrialized economy, 66% of the population in Thailand is still rural. The country’s population was 69.1 million in 2010 and grew at 0.76% per year in 2005-10. The population density was 132 per km² in 2010.
The Thai economy is export dependent, in which exports—which include rice—account for more than half of GDP. Aside from rice, the country’s major agricultural exports are tapioca, rubber, maize, pineapple, durian, longan, palm oil, and herbs. The leading manufactured exports are computers and computer accessories, integrated circuits, textiles, electronics, automobiles and spare parts, gems and jewelry, and televisions and television accessories. GDP fell to –2.3% in 2009 during the global economic crisis but rebounded to 7.8% in 2010. However, in 2011, growth was again low at 0.1%. In 2010, industry accounted for 44.6% of GDP, services shared 43%, while agriculture contributed 12.4%. Although agriculture has the lowest contribution to GDP, it employs about 42% of the total labor force.
Recent developments in the rice sector
Thailand’s arable land declined from 16.8 million ha in 1995 to 15.3 million ha in 2009. However, the area harvested to rice improved to 10.9 million ha in 2010 from 9.1 million ha in 1995. Higher prices of rice in the world market are encouraging farmers to grow more rice per crop year. In general, rice yield is low because of the prevalence of rainfed ecosystems and farmers’ preference to grow high-quality, low-yielding traditional varieties that command a premium price in the domestic and world markets. Rice yield, 2.9 t/ha in 2010, diminished by 0.5%/year in 2005-10. Nevertheless, with the expansion in the area harvested to rice, rice production has improved in recent years, from 22 million t in 1995 to about 32 million t in 2010, and it grew at 1.2% per year in 2005-10.
Liberalization of rice policies in Thailand in the past decade seemed to have been quite similar. In 2001, the government implemented a rice price guarantee policy that functioned as a mortgage program, wherein farmers could obtain government loans at a low interest rate. With this policy, farmers could sell their paddy to government agencies and also buy it back within 90 days at 3% interest rate. The program was managed by the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) and supervised by the Ministry of Finance. Since the guaranteed price was set much higher than the market price, the policy became too costly for the government because it ended up with very large procurements. Consequently, the program was suspended for two years. But the succeeding government relaunched it for the first harvest of 2008 and even increased the pledged price for the second harvest of 2008—at about 20% higher than the market price. The price support helped farmers increase their income and it gained support from millers who also benefited from the price support. However, the pledged prices resulted in distortions in production and caused trade problems. Rice-importing countries delayed their imports to await cheaper rice from other rice-exporting countries.
Aside from the above policies on prices, the government also supports rice production through its crop insurance program, through which subsidized fertilizers are available. However, farmers are required to register with BAAC to enable them to join the program. Farmers can either buy fertilizers on a cash basis or borrow from BAAC at 7% annual interest.
Rice is the staple food, with an average per capita consumption of 133 kg per year in 2009, comparatively much higher than in 1995, which is only 96.4 kg per year. As a result, per capita caloric intake increased from 42.8% (960 kcal) per day in 1995 to 46.2% (1,323 kcal) per day in 2009, while wheat’s share increased from 2.9% in 1995 to 4.1% in 2009. In terms of protein requirements, per capita intake from rice increased from 29.2% per day in 1995 to 36.9% per day in 2009, whereas wheat’s share of intake increased from 3.6% per day in 1995 to 5.9% per day in 2009.
Thailand is not only one of the world’s largest rice producers; it also remains the world’s largest rice exporter. Its rice exports surged from around 6.2 million t in 1995 to 8.9 million t in 2010 and grew at about 4% per year in 2005-10.
Rice production in Thailand can be classified into four ecosystems; irrigated, rainfed lowland, deepwater, and upland. Rainfed lowland is the most predominant, followed by irrigated, deepwater, and upland.
Administratively as well as geographically, Thailand is divided into four regions: central, north, northeast, and south. Each region has different rice-growing environments.
Northeastern region. The northeastern region is also known as the Khorat plateau, a saucer-shaped tableland situated at 90–200 meters above sea level. Almost one-third of the land area and nearly half the rice land of Thailand are located in this region; the average size of rice farms is smaller than in other regions. Irrigation potential in the region is limited due to undulating topography. Moreover, soil erosion and drought during the dry season are acute. The water-holding capacity of the soil is extremely poor. The northeastern region produces both long grain and glutinous rice.
Central region. The central region is an intensively cultivated alluvial area. During the rainy season, rice covers the major part of the region, which accounts for about one-fifth of the total cultivated rice land of the country in the wet season. The average farm size is large, and a large proportion of the rice land has access to irrigation facilities, allowing many farmers to grow two rice crops during the year. Almost 75% of the dry-season rice grown under irrigated conditions is located in this region. Farm operations are almost entirely mechanized, and farmers adopt the direct-seeding method of crop establishment to save labor. This region produces mostly long-grain rice. The main rice surplus comes from this region.
Northern region. The northern region contains almost one-third of the land area of Thailand. Upland rice is grown in the lower altitudes of high hills and in upland areas. Lowland rice is grown mainly in lower valleys and on some terraced fields where water is available. The northern region has about 20% of the total rice land in the country.
Southern region. The southern region, touching the west and east coasts of the peninsula, constitutes about 14% of the total area of the country. The region has only 6% of the total rice land. The soil is acidic. With limited rice fields under cultivation, there is always a shortage of rice for local consumption.
Rice production constraints
Even though the country is still one of the world’s largest rice producers and the largest rice exporter, its rice sector faces the following production constraints:
- The major production constraints are rainfall variability, drought, submergence, and inherently low soil fertility. These constraints affect the different rice ecosystems to varying degrees and imply that the production systems are very vulnerable to climate change, which will exacerbate extreme climate events. Drought at the early vegetative phase and long-term deep flooding from the late vegetative phase to early ripening phase and weed competition are the most important production constraints in the deepwater ecosystem. Drought and poor soil fertility affect upland systems the most.
- In irrigated ecosystems, production constraints are generally not related to climatic factors but to biotic factors such as pests and diseases. Water scarcity in the dry season is another important constraint in irrigated environments.
- Stagnating yield is both a short-term and long-term problem. Mean rice yields nationally for the last 10 years were almost constant, ranging from 2.8 to 2.9 t/ha.
- Labor shortages during peak periods because of better employment opportunities in urban areas are a further constraint, especially in the central region, where industrial employment is higher. However, this constraint is partly being solved through mechanization.
Rice production opportunities
The Rice Research Institute of the Department of Agriculture is the major government institution directly involved in rice research, primarily in increasing productivity through continuous development and deployment of high-quality varieties with varying maturity periods to suit different production conditions, acid-tolerant rice varieties, and varieties with added attributes such as disease and pest tolerance, designed to improve rice yields. The institute also has the mandate for research and extension activities for better crop protection and water and soil management technologies that can help improve yields.
The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) under the Ministry of Science and Technology is also involved in rice research. Their Rice Program aims to increase the rice industry’s competitive capability throughout the production chain while reducing the environmental impact. Key operation plans include
- Developing technologies to increase rice production efficiency, for example, breeding rice varieties that are resistant to pests and can adapt to climate change caused by global warming, transferring high-quality grain production technology to farmers, developing and transferring agricultural equipment and machine production technology for higher efficiency and lower planting and harvesting costs, and developing information and communication technology to monitor rice disease and pest outbreaks;
- Improving milling and drying efficiency, and reducing energy use and milling waste for small and medium-sized enterprises; and
- Developing production process technology and rice-based products.
Rice varieties developed outside the country are also proving useful in improving productivity. An IRRI submergence-tolerant variety was recently found to perform well also in mildly improved (with the application of a small amount of lime) acid-sulfate soil in Narathiwat Province, southern Thailand, giving significantly higher yield than two Thai varieties used in the area.
Sources: FAO’s FAOSTAT database online and AQUASTAT database online, as of September 2012.