Agriculture in Thailand

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 accounts for an estimated 9-10.5 percent of Thai GDP.[2] Forty percent of the population works in agriculture-related jobs.[3]

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.


Following the Neolithic Revolution, society in the area evolved from hunting and gathering, through phases of agro-cities, and into state-religious empires.

From about 1000 CE, Tai wet glutinous rice culture determined administrative structures in a pragmatic society that regularly produced a saleable surplus. Continuing today, these systems consolidate the importance of rice agriculture to national security and economic well-being.

Agricultural developments have meant that since the 1960s unemployment has fallen from over 60 percent to under 10 percent in the early-2000s.[4] In the same period food prices halved, hunger decreased (from 2.55 million households in 1988 to 418,000 in 2007) and child malnutrition was reduced (from 17 percent in 1987 to seven percent in 2006).[4] This has been achieved through a a strong state role in ensuring investment in infrastructure, education, and access to credit and successful private initiatives in the agribusiness sector.[4] This has supported Thailand's transition to an industrialised economy.[4]

Agriculture in transition

Agriculture expanded during the 1960s and 1970s as it had access to new land and unemployed labour.[4] 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.[4] 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.[4]

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.[4] Aided 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).[4] The state further invested in education, irrigation, and rural roads.[4] 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.[4]

As agriculture declined in relative financial importance in terms of income, with rising industrialization and Westernisation of Thailand from the 1960s, it continued to provide the benefits of employment and self-sufficiency, rural social support, and cultural custody. Technical and economic globalisation have continued to change agriculture to a food industry which exposed smallholders to such an extent that 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.[4]

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 seeks to expand its exports in livestock.



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.[5]

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." [6]


Thailand ranks as the world's largest rubber producer and exporter, producing around 4.3 million tonnes per year,[7] while consuming only 519,000 tons.[3] 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.[7]

Similarly, rubber futures in Shanghai have dropped by 22 percent and the export price of Thai rubber by 23 percent.[3]

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.[3]


Thailand produces only 60,000 tonnes of soybeans a year, meeting only two percent of a total demand nearing three million tonnes. Thailand imports about two million tonnes annually to meet a growing demand from the livestock and aquaculture sectors both in Thailand and neighbouring countries. Poultry farms and hog operations drive demand in the livestock sector. In aquaculture, shrimp farms are the major consumer of soybean meal. Soybean production in the country has fallen in the past several years due to high production costs largely attributed to wage hikes. Farmers also complain of lower profitability compared with maize and off-season rice.[8]


Tapioca is grown in 48 of Thailand's 76 provinces.[9] The total area of tapioca plantations in Thailand during crop year 2015-2016 was about 8.8 million rai (1 rai = 1,600 m2), allowing the production of about 33 million tons of native starch.[10] The largest proportion of tapioca plantations in Thailand is in the northeast region. The five provinces with the largest tapioca plantations are Nakhon Ratchasima, Kamphaeng Phet, Chaiyaphum, Sa Kaeo, and Chachoengsao.[11]



The Thai Royal Rainmaking Project was initiated in 1995 by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. As Thai farmers faced recurring drought, he proposed a solution to the water shortage, cloud seeding.[12]

Effect of climate change

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.[13]

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.[13] 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.[14]

Already, due to the drought of 2015-2016, rice production declined 16 percent from 19.8 million tons to 16.5 million.[3] Overall, Thailand lost 6.1 million tonnes of agricultural products worth 15.5 billion baht between January 2015 and April 2016.[15]

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 chemicals

King Bhumibol was a staunch believer in organic farming. Despite that, successive governments have all promoted chemical-based agriculture. In the 1960s, Thailand joined the so-called "green revolution". Farmers were encouraged to grow new strains of crops that were optimised for chemical inputs. Thailand today is one of the world's top users of farm chemicals. The country imports about 160,000 tonnes of farm chemicals per year at a cost of 22 billion baht. Since 2011, agricultural chemical imports have risen by 50 percent. According to the World Bank, that makes Thailand the world's fifth biggest consumer of toxic substances, although Thailand ranks only 48th in the world in the extent of its arable land.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

Governmental intervention

In November 2016, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha pledged to improve the well-being of farmers over the following five years. He did so in the face of declining rice prices, the lowest in ten years. He said the improvements would result from "smart farmer projects" initiated by the government, part of its 20-year national strategy. Following up on Prayut's remarks, Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister General Chatchai said that the government's strategy would increase farmer income to 390,000 baht per person per year within 20 years. This, he said, would be achieved by increasing the number of large farms to 5,000 nationwide and by switching 500,000 rai from rice cultivation to other crops. The government allocated eight billion baht for the provision of soft loans to farmers in 35 provinces to switch to growing maize on two million rai.[19]

In 2016 rice subsidies were approved for hom mali, white paddy, Pathum Thani fragrant paddy, and glutinous rice. The government will pay up to 13,000 baht per tonne to growers who store their rice until overall rice prices gradually recover.[20]

See also

Further reading


  1. 1 2 3 4 Lee, Brendon (2015-07-20). "Sci Dev Net; South East Asia & Pacific". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  2. "Agriculture, value added (% of GDP)". The World Bank. Retrieved 26 November 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Luedi, Jeremy (2016-01-23). "Extreme drought threatens Thailand's political stability". Global Risk Insights. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Leturque, Henri; Wiggins, Steve (2011). Thailand's progress in agriculture: Transition and sustained productivity growth. London: Overseas Development Institute.
  5. Thongnoi, Jitsiree (2015-10-18). "Milking the system". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
  6. Suwanabol, Dr Issara. "School Milk Programme in Thailand" (PDF). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
  7. 1 2 Phoonphongphiphat, Apornrath (2016-02-08). "Rubber estates may be way forward". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
  8. Theparat, Chatrudee (25 November 2016). "Duty-free soybean imports get state nod". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 25 November 2016.
  9. "Tapioca Background". Thai Tapioca Starch Association (TTSA). Retrieved 20 November 2016.
  10. "Tapioca Production". Thai Tapioca Starch Association (TTSA). Retrieved 20 November 2016.
  11. Office of Agricultural Economics, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, 2007
  12. "King Bhumibol and His Enlightened Approach to Teaching". Retrieved 2016-11-04.
  13. 1 2 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.
  14. Kisner, Corinne (July 2008). "Climate Change in Thailand: Impacts and Adaptation Strategies". Climate Institute. Retrieved 29 Mar 2015.
  15. Wangkiat, Paritta (27 November 2016). "The heat is on". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  16. Ekachai, Sanitsuda (26 November 2016). "Organic rice a saviour for struggling farmers" (Editorial). Bangkok Post. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  18. Tai-pan (2014-02-26). "Problems with chemical pesticides still not solved. 1 in 3 farmers at excessive risk". Biothai. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
  19. Wipatayotin, Apinya; Seehawong, Chudet (17 November 2016). "Prayut assures farmers' income will increase over next 5 years". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  20. Arunmas, Phusadee (19 November 2016). "Sticky rice subsidised". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 20 November 2016.

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