AGRICULTURE IN THAILAND: HISTORY, LAND USE, INDEBTED FARMERS, IRRIGATION AND FOOD INDUSTRIES

AGRICULTURE IN THAILAND

In 2006 agriculture, forestry, and fishing contributed less than 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) but employed about 39 percent of the workforce. Thailand is one of the world’s leading exporter of rice and a major exporter of shrimp. Other agricultural products include coconuts, corn, rubber, soybeans, sugarcane, and tapioca. Agriculture has long been the mainstay of the Thai economy, with abundant natural resources, and the majority of the Thai population engage in agricultural practices. In the 1980s, agriculture--crops, livestock, forestry, and fisheries-- employed about three-quarters of the labor force, and it was estimated that some four-fifths of the total population was dependent on the sector for its livelihood. At that time agriculture accounted for an average of about 25 percent of GDP, and agricultural commodities accounted annually for over 60 percent of the value of all exports. [Library of Congress, 1987]

Land use: arable land: 27.54 percent; permanent crops: 6.93 percent. Irrigated land: 64,150 square kilometers (2003). Total renewable water resources: 409.9 cu kilometers (1999) Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 82.75 cu km/yr (2 percent/2 percent/95 percent); per capita: 1,288 cu m/yr (2000). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Most of Thailand’s arable land is in the central and eastern part of the country, where rice and other crops are grown on the vast, wet alluvial plains around Bangkok and the Chao Phrava River. About 1.5 percent of Thailand is covered by grasslands and 28.6 percent is occupied by forests and woods. The remainder of the country is covered primarily by mountains.

On land outside of Bangkok formerly occupied by rice paddies are large commercial farms tended by tractors and harvesters. Yet, agriculture is still not very mechanized in some parts of Thailand. Many farmer still till their land with metal-shod plows pulled by water buffalo or bullocks, with crop being harvest largely by hand. In recent years machines have been introduced that enable farmers to mechanically plant and harvest their rice.

Thailand owes high agricultural output to it alluvial soils and topography, plentiful water supplies and tropical climate, which allows several plantings a year. Geographically, the most fertile area of the country covers the Central Plains, a low-lying valley fed by an extensive network of rivers and waterways. The Thai people have traditionally been rooted in rice agriculture and in the way of the water, for the rivers and waterways form an integral part of their lives.

In terms of regions: 1) central Thailand is regarded as the country’s breadbasket, with large amounts of rice, sugarcane and fruits such as pineapples produced there. 2) Rubber is the primary agricultural money earner in southern Thailand. 3) Dry rice and maize are the main crops on the north. Opium is still grown but is no longer the cash crop it once was. 4) The Northeast is Thailand’ poorest region. Most people are farmers.

See Separate Articles Rice, Food and Crops and articles on Food

Rice Agriculture, Culture and History in Thailand

Rice has always sustained people in Thailand and formed a close bond with their way of life for over 5,000 years. It not only feds people throughout the land but also plays a very significant role in the history, culture, society, and economy of the Thai nation. According to the Thai government: “In an agricultural society, rice, as a cereal, is the stuff of life and the source of traditions and beliefs; it has played an important role in Thai society since time immemorial, providing a strong foundation for the evolution of all aspects of society and culture. Rice is regarded as a sacred plant with a breath (spirit), a life, and a soul of its own, just like that of human beings. To the Thai people, rice is guarded by the goddess Phosop, who acts as its tutelary deity, and rice itself is considered a "mother" keeping guard over the nation's young and watching over their growth into adulthood. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Thailand is home to one of the world's oldest rice-based civilizations. Rice is believed to have first been being cultivated in there around 3,500 B.C. Evidence of ancient rice agriculture includes rice marking found on pottery fragments unearthed in graves unearthed at Non Noktha village in Khon Kaen province in northeast Thailand that have been dated to be 5,400 years old and rice husks found in pottery in the north, at Pung Hung Cave, Mae Hong Son dated to be around 5,000 years old. People that lived in a site called Khok Phanom Di in Thailand between 4,000 and 3,500 year ago practiced rice farming and buried their dead facing east in shrouds of bark and asbestos fibers. The oldest rice grains ever discovered in China; they date back to about 5000 B.C.

Historically, Thailand's independent status had kept it from being saddled with a colonial plantation economy, in which two or three principal crops were produced for world markets or for the imperial power. Agricultural production, however, had been strongly influenced by the West after the Bowring Treaty of 1855 with Britain, which resulted in crop diversification. Accordingly, when new market conditions-- increased world demand, higher prices, and developing domestic industry--arose during the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand's independent small farmers responded by expanding substantially the output of many secondary crops. [Library of Congress *]

Much of the impressive economic growth recorded by Thailand in the 1970s and the early 1980s was owed to the steady expansion of the agricultural sector. This sector provided adequate food for the rapidly growing population and produced substantial surpluses of some commodities for export. *

The Thai farmer's ability to adapt to changing market conditions contributed to the country's agricultural success, but even more important was the availability of large areas of virgin land for cultivation. Between 1950 and 1980, agricultural holdings nearly doubled to an estimated 22 million hectares, of which about three-quarters were farmed annually, and much of the rapidly growing population was absorbed in the expansion. By the early 1980s, however, most of the arable land had been occupied, except in the South, and continued growth of the agricultural sector became increasingly dependent on the acceptance of new technologies and the adoption of more intensive cultivation. Observers feared that without these changes growing domestic demand--both from increasing population and from rising expectations--would seriously affect the nation's balance of payments position through the reduction of exportable surpluses of vital major foreign exchange earners, such as rice and sugar. *

The devaluation of the baht 1997 economic crisis was boon for agricultural exports. Heavy rains in 2005 produced record harvests. Droughts in 2004 reduced the harvest. The regional avian flu outbreak led to a contraction of Thailand’s agricultural sector during the mid 2000s.

See Land Tenure and Land Reform Below

Farmers

Agriculture is the principal occupation for a large portion of the Thai population, with over half being rice farmers. Likened to the "backbone of the nation," the farmers grow rice to feed the entire population and export the rest to feed many more millions around the world. Other cash crops that make up the agricultural economy include sugar cane, maize, cassava, and an immense variety of fruit, and there are many animal products. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Many farmers in Thailand have been driven into debt. Thai peasants traditionally owned their land, but the introduction of money and loans combined with land shortages have created a group of landless farmers.

Important issues for farmers include establishing ownership rights to the land they cultivate and trying to make a profit in the face of rising costs for things like fertilizer and fickle price for their crops that can drop so low they earn virtually nothing.

See Rural Life

Agricultural Products in Thailand

Agricultural products in Thailand can be classified into four types: 1) Crops, including rice, the country’s number one export item, tapioca, natural rubber, palm oil, maize, soybean, and pineapple; 2) Forestry and timber products (40 percent of the area in Thailand has been designated as forests); 3) Fishery products, which is comprised of freshwater fisheries, including farm breeding of aquatic animals, and saltwater fisheries; and 4) livestock products such as chicken, eggs, and pork, which are also in high demand in the domestic market and exported.

Major trading partners in agricultural products with Thailand, ranked by export value: 1) Rice (Nigeria, China, Japan, United States); 2) Natural rubber ( Benin, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Japan); 3) Processed chicken (South Africa, Japan, Netherlands, Canada, Taiwan); 4) Chilled or frozen shrimp (Cote d’Ivoire, United States, Germany, Republic of Korea); and 5) Tapioca products (Ghana, Republic of Korea, Ireland, United Kingdom, Indonesia). [Source: Office of Agricultural Policy and Planning, Office of Agricultural Economics]

Types of Agriculture in Thailand

The type of agriculture engaged in--whether cash crop, subsistence, or a combination thereof--varied from region to region and within regions. In the central plain, there were farmers whose sole activity was the raising of such cash crops as maize, sugarcane, vegetables, and fruit. In the rice bowl region of the central plain, farmers grew rice for sale as a main crop. Elsewhere, rice was raised basically for subsistence purposes, but many farmers also cultivated secondary crops for the market. In areas without developed access roads and services, such as parts of the upper Northeast, participation in the market economy was limited. Farmers in these areas practiced subsistence cultivation, selling only an occasional surplus locally. [Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Agriculture was dominated by smallholders, most of whom had either outright title to the land or effective possession of it; tenancy was significant only in parts of the central plain. In the early 1980s, the average holding for the whole country was about 5.6 hectares, but considerable size differences existed within different regions and locales that related in part to terrain, soils, rainfall, and other natural factors. In the North, where nearly a quarter of the nation's more than 4.5 million agricultural households were located (1983 estimate), over half the land is mountainous. In the upper part of the region, which is characterized by narrow valleys, average holdings were only about 2.2 hectares. In the parts of this upper area that had controlled irrigation, the typical farm only had slightly more than one hectare. A farm on nonirrigated land consisted of about two hectares, part of which was rain-fed paddy and part upland. The lower part of the region had areas similar to those in the central plain. Farms were considerably larger, the typical one having close to five hectares. Both paddy and upland crops were grown, and maize had become an important secondary cash crop for many farmers. *

In the Northeast, the generally infertile soil required larger holdings to meet subsistence needs. Over half the farms had between 2.4 and 7.2 hectares, and the typical farm had an area of about 4 hectares. In the early 1980s, about 40 percent of the country's agricultural households lived in this region. Holdings in the Center, which contained about 20 percent of the nation's agricultural households, varied considerably. Near Bangkok small farms producing market vegetables might have little more than half a hectare, whereas commercial rice farms outside the city averaged over ten hectares. The typical commercial rice holding on the central plain, however, averaged somewhat over three hectares, and all available land was under cultivation. In the upland to the east of the plain, where maize was grown commercially, the typical farm size was close to 6.5 hectares. Cassava was also grown in this area on somewhat smaller farms, typically of about five hectares. West of the plain, the uplands were devoted in part to sugarcane grown on holdings usually of about three hectares. In the South, the rugged terrain made about two-fifths of the region unsuitable for agriculture. The climate, however, favored the cultivation of rubber trees, and the majority of farms grew rubber as a cash crop along with subsistence rice. A typical household had about three hectares: 1.5 hectares of rubber trees, small areas of coconut or fruit trees, and the rest planted in rice. In the three southernmost provinces holdings were smaller, averaging about two hectares. *

Land Use and Soils in Thailand

Roughly two-fifths of Thailand is covered by mountains and hills, the steepness of which generally precludes cultivation. Nevertheless, perhaps as much as a tenth of this area might also be converted to agricultural purposes once detailed information was obtained through surveys. Estimates in the 1970s of overall land-use suitability classified roughly 58 percent of mountainous and hilly regions as cultivable (compared with 24 percent 2 decades earlier), of which about 19 percent was usable for paddy, 28 percent for upland crops, and 11 percent for both paddy and upland agriculture. Actual holdings of agricultural land--not all of which was under cultivation at any one time--were estimated in the mid-1970s to occupy about 43 percent of the total land area. [Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Soils throughout most of the country are of low fertility, largely as a result of leaching by heavy rainfall. Differences between the various soil types are the result of differences in parent rock material, variations in the amount of rainfall, length of wet and dry seasons, type of vegetable cover, and other natural factors. In general, stony and shallow soils characterize the hill and mountain terrain of the North. Large portions of this mountainous area were traditionally used by hill peoples for shifting cultivation. The Lua (also called Lawa) and Karen cultivated for short periods, then permitted the land to lie fallow for long periods, which allowed forest regrowth and restoration of soil fertility. As a result of population pressures, however, other groups sometimes failed to follow this practice. The principle crop of many hill peoples was upland rice; maize was an important secondary crop. The Hmong, Lisu, and certain other hill peoples cultivated the opium poppy as a cash crop , but this activity had important implications for internal stability as well as major international repercussions. Thai authorities, with substantial international assistance, increased efforts in the 1980s to redirect these people to other cash crops, including tobacco and coffee. *

Many inhabitants of the lowlands in the North also practiced shifting cultivation in hill areas lying not far above the valleys. The valleys usually had better soils, some of fairly high or moderate fertility, which were used mainly to grow irrigated rice. In places where population pressures had developed, the higher areas were often turned to shifting cultivation to supplement lowland production. The principal crop was usually upland rice, although other crops were also grown. Shallow sandy loams cover a large part of the Khorat Plateau. Their generally low fertility partly explains the lower economic level of the region. Soils along the main rivers are more fertile, and alluvial loams of high fertility are found along the Mekong River. Lowland soils covering about a fifth of the Northeast (some 3.5 million hectares) had been converted to rice paddy. *

The central plain rice-growing area and the delta of the Mae Nam (river) Chao Phraya has clayey soils of high to moderate fertility. Low-lying and flat, much of the area is flooded during the rainy season. Higher areas on the edges of the plain are generally well-drained soils of high to moderate fertility that are suitable for intensive cultivation. These lands are used extensively for maize and sugarcane. Among other highly useful soils are the well-drained clayey and loamy soils in parts of the peninsula where rubber is grown. *

Land Tenure in Thailand

Traditionally, the king owned all the land, from which he made grants to nobles, officials, and other free subjects. If left uncultivated for three years, the land could be taken back by the crown, but otherwise it could be passed on to heirs or mortgaged or sold. At the same time, there was abundant unoccupied cultivable land that by tradition and custom could be cleared and used by a farmer, who after three years of continuous cultivation established informal rights. The concept of individual ownership of the land was introduced during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), and beginning in 1901 formal title could be acquired. [Library of Congress, 1987]

The titling of land in the mid-1980s was based on a land code promulgated in 1954. The 1954 code established eight hectares as the maximum permissible holding except where the owner could manage a larger holding by himself. This limitation was generally ignored, however, and was rescinded four years later. A title deed (chanod tidin) giving unrestricted ownership rights ordinarily was issued only after a cadastral survey. At least two prior steps were required before the prospective landholder could obtain a full title deed. Application was first made to occupy and cultivate a piece of unused land, and a temporary occupancy permit (bai chong--reserve license) that carried no title rights was received. After 75 percent of the land had been cultivated, the landholder could secure an exploitation testimonial (nor sor). This gave him the right to occupy the land permanently and to pass the property on to heirs; in effect it was an assurance that a title deed eventually would be forthcoming. Transferring the land through sale, however, was extremely difficult, and the exploitation testimonial was not usually accepted by banks as collateral. In the case of squatters, a special occupancy permit (sor kor) could also be obtained, unless the land was in a permanent reserved forest or was intended for public use. Satisfactory development could then lead to the issuance of an exploitation testimonial and ultimately a full title deed. *

The issuance of title deeds, which proceeded at a relatively slow pace in the early 1950s, quickened somewhat during the remainder of the decade. By 1960 the total number of title deeds for agricultural land had reached 1 million, although there were 3.4 million agricultural households (this total included an unknown number of tenants' households). The pressure for titles of various kinds increased during the 1960s and 1970s as the number of farm holdings expanded rapidly. In an effort to expedite the processing of title deeds, the Department of Land of the Ministry of Interior resorted in the 1970s to the use of aerial photography in lieu of land surveys. *

In the 1980s, a substantial component of the nation's dominant smallholder group nevertheless lacked full title to the land it worked. By 1982 the total number of title deeds was 3.9 million. A 1976 estimate placed the proportion of farm holdings having formal title at about 60 percent. The lack of full title by the remaining 40 percent created not only a sense of insecurity for the landholder but also presented a barrier to securing needed credit. *

A major question in the mid-1980s concerned the legalization of farm holdings outside recognized areas for land acquisition. An unknown but substantial number of holdings had been established by squatters--many of them hill people--in the reserve forests, which, according to the central government, were not eligible for titling, although the de facto possession of such holdings was recognized by local authorities. Observers pointed out that in many cases of forest encroachment the occupied land was incorrectly classified and in fact was suitable for cultivation (some reclassification was reported in the late 1970s). It also appeared that in the drafting of the country's land laws there was an underlying assumption that agricultural land meant the lowlands; in other words, the land in mountainous and hill areas was considered nonagricultural. Thus, a large part of the North was not even included in the land registration system, and the hill peoples of the region were therefore unable to acquire legal title to the land they used.*

An estimated 1 million people have been forced off their land. Many of them have no recourse because although their families have occupied the land for centuries they have no official title. May people don't now how to get land titles and those that do don't have the money to bribe bureaucrats to get the job done.

Early Land Reform in Thailand

Historically, agricultural tenancy nationwide appeared to have been low except in the commercial rice-growing areas of the central plain and in the North. This situation was the result of land reforms instituted by King Chulalongkorn beginning in 1874, the great availability of free land, the absence of population pressures, and the relatively small amount of funds required by the individual farmer to start cultivating rice. Together with customary practices that tended to limit the amount of cultivable land that could be claimed, these factors resulted in a national pattern of small independent farms. Of great significance to this development was the law that the farmer had to cultivate his own land; if it was more than he or his family could handle, the farmer had to supervise cultivation of the excess. Four hectares were considered the maximum tillable by one family, although with hired help up to about eight hectares could be managed, the amount varying with soil differences and climatic conditions.[Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Nineteenth-century legislation set a four-hectare limit on freely acquirable agricultural land and acted as a major deterrent to the accumulation of land into large estates. Nevertheless, large holdings did exist as grants to nobles and officials under the sakdi na system. Chulalongkorn's reforms played an important part in the breakup of at least some large estates. In such cases the law provided that the uncultivated land would revert to the state after a period of three years. In the area around the capital, however, where many larger holdings were located, land could be rented out, and the landholdings therefore remained intact. *

Statistical data on tenancy in the mid-twentieth century varied considerably. A problem of classification concerning whether the fairly numerous part owner-part tenant arrangements should be included with owners or tenants also led to different conclusions. The part owner-part tenant group consisted largely of farmers who owned small plots but also worked as tenants on other larger farms. *

High Numbers of Indebted and Landless Farmers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s

In some areas, 95 percent of the farmers were reported to be deeply in debt. According to the government censuses of agriculture in 1950 and 1963, the rates of full tenancy for the country as a whole were 6.6 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. Rates varied significantly by region. In 1963 the rate in the Center, the chief agricultural area containing the rice-growing central plain, was 10.7 percent as compared with 1.1 percent in the North. A special 1967-68 survey of the Center determined the full tenancy rate to be 22.5 percent (part owners-part tenants constituted an additional 15.8 percent). A 1973-74 survey of the Center, as well as other regions, showed the full-tenancy rate in the Center to be 12 percent (part owners-part tenants constituted another 28 percent). The remainder were full owners. Tenancy in the Center in areas devoted completely to commercialized agriculture was very high, however, especially in some districts near Bangkok where as many as 75 to 85 percent of the farmers were reported in the mid-1970s to be full tenants. Lower, but still comparatively high, rates of tenancy were also found in certain other districts of the plain. [Library of Congress, 1987 *]

The unusually high tenancy rates were attributed to several factors, including the proximity to Bangkok of estates that were granted to the ancestors of present-day holders under the sakdi na system; large holdings received as remuneration for the digging of canals; and, since the 1950s, acquisition of land as investment by individuals residing mostly in Bangkok. Figures published in 1975 covering 4 provinces in the Bangkok area cited 119 estates ranging in size from 160 hectares to 1,600 hectares and comprising a total of more than 60,000 hectares. Another factor contributing to tenancy in the central plain was the loss of holdings to creditors by farmers unable to repay loans. A large proportion of the small leaseholds was reported to be owned by storekeepers, local craftsmen, and other farmers. *

The 1973-74 agricultural survey also provided data on tenancy in other regions. In the North, the survey found that 4 percent of the farmer operators were full tenants, 25 percent were part owners-part tenants, and 69 percent were full owners. The southeastern provinces of the North, where conditions resemble those of the central plain, reportedly had a higher percentage of farmers renting some or all of their land. In the Northeast, full tenants constituted only a negligible proportion; 89 percent of farm operators were full owners, and 8 percent were part owners-part tenants. *

In the South, full tenants likewise were only a very small minority; 83 percent were full owners, and 16 percent were part owners-part tenants. One reason given for the development of the part owner-part tenant situation was the effect of Islamic inheritance laws, which in theory divide the land equally among the children. In such cases, the inherited holding might be inadequate to meet family needs, and supplementary land would be rented. The part owned-part rented condition was not in itself detrimental. There appeared to be many cases in which additional land was rented solely because the farmer family believed it would benefit financially by cultivating it. *

Unrest among tenants, who constituted a substantial portion of the nation's poorer farmers, began to manifest itself in the early 1970s. Tenant discontent centered chiefly on the amount of rent, but also of great concern was the fact that use of the land was often based on a verbal agreement that rarely exceeded one year and carried no guarantees of renewal. In 1950 a land rent- control act covering part of the central plain was passed but proved generally ineffective. The civilian cabinet that succeeded to power in October 1973 promised rent and land reform. Implementing action was not immediately forthcoming, however, and farmer dissatisfaction mounted, finally erupting in demonstrations in May and June 1974. In December of that year, the government passed a rent reform law known as the Agricultural Land Rent Control Act of 1974, providing for six-year, indefinitely renewable rental contracts. Rents were to be payable once a year only, and procedures for determining the amount were specified. Moreover, if a poor harvest occurred, the rent was to be reduced, and none would be paid if the harvest were less than one-third normal. *

Associated with tenancy was the equally serious problem of landless farmers, who by the early 1980s numbered an estimated 500,000 to 700,000. In January 1975, the civilian government, over strong opposition, managed to get through the National Assembly a second reform measure of potentially far-reaching effect. This was the Agricultural Land Reform Act of 1975. The legislation called for the establishment of the Agricultural Land Reform Office in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to serve as the implementing agency. Under the act, landless and tenant farmers could be allocated up to eight hectares of land that would be paid for on a long-term installment basis. The land to be allocated was to come from purchases from private holders and from forest and crown lands. Individual landowners were required to make available to the program all but eight hectares of their holding. Under certain circumstances, larger holdings could be retained, but such holdings could be expropriated later if the provisions of the exception were not met. Payment for the private land taken was to be 25 percent in cash and the remainder in government bonds. *

Land Reform in Thailand in the 1970s

Implementation of land reform slowed after the coup of October 1976, which ousted the civilian government, and the act's goals were subsequently shifted. The government of Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien, installed as head of a military regime in October 1976, announced that a land reform program covering 1.6 million hectares and taking place over a period of four years would be carried out. Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanand, who succeeded to office in November 1977 after still another military coup, modified this goal to a more realistic one of 1.3 million hectares over five years. By early 1979, almost eighty areas throughout the country had been designated Land Reform Areas under the program. At the same time, although tenancy remained a major issue, a somewhat different concept of reform seemed to have emerged, based on the belief that the most pressing problem was to improve the situation of the large numbers of illegal squatters in the forests. The Land Reform Areas included some areas of high tenancy, but the new goal of helping forest squatters appeared easier to promote than land acquisition by the Agricultural Land Reform Office in the high-tenancy areas of the central plain. There it was strongly opposed by large landowners, including wealthy aristocrats, businessmen, and senior military officers. [Library of Congress, 1987 *]

The program as projected included furnishing legal titles to squatters and providing them with needed infrastructure and credit. The areas brought under the program were to be organized into self-sufficient cooperatives. Implementation of a given project was expected to take about two years, including about a year and a half to get the basic infrastructure well under way and to provide titles. The latter would permit the landholder to pass on the land to heirs but would not confer the right to sell it to private parties. The title, however, could be used as collateral for credit. According to government sources, by 1978 some 320,000 hectares consisting mainly of public land had been distributed, and another 160,000 hectares were ready to be apportioned. *

Irrigation in Thailand

Thai farmers traditionally relied on rain and flood water for crops, but the amount needed for rice cultivation was not always received. By the mid-1800s, a number of canals had been constructed in the central plain to carry floodwaters from the Chao Phraya, and in the latter half of the century other canals were dug. The canals did not form a controlled irrigation system, however, but simply a distribution net, and whether additional water could be made available depended on the level of the rivers. Records covering almost a hundred years to 1930 showed that in about one-third of the years water from the rivers was insufficient, resulting in considerable crop losses. In 1902 the government contracted with a Dutch expert to develop a controlled irrigation plan for the entire country but failed to take further action. Droughts in 1910 and 1911 led to renewed interest and the hiring of a British irrigation specialist. Nevertheless, the first irrigation project was not completed until 1922. [Library of Congress, 1987*]

By 1938 about 440,000 hectares had been irrigated. Supply problems held up projects during World War II, but work resumed with renewed vigor in the late 1940s. By 1950 the irrigated area totaled nearly 650,000 hectares. In 1950 Thailand secured the first of a series of loans from the World Bank for the construction of the vital Chainant Diversion Dam on the Chao Phraya and a number of major canals. By 1960 over 1.5 million hectares had been irrigated, almost entirely in the Center and in the North. *

Systematic development of the irrigation system began with the First Economic Development Plan (1961-66) and was continued in later plans. New assistance from the World Bank included financing of the important multipurpose Phumiphon (Bhumibol) Dam (completed in 1964) on the Mae Nam Ping and the Sirikit Dam (completed in 1973) on the Mae Nam Nan. These dams, both of which have associated hydroelectric power-generating facilities, impound water at two large reservoir locations in the Chao Phraya Basin. Other World Bank-financed projects were also carried out in this basin during the 1970s, and by the end of the decade nearly 1.3 million hectares had controlled water flow in the rainy season, and about 450,000 hectares had it in the dry season. *

The Chao Phraya Basin's natural features, as well as its size, made it the most important area for irrigation development. The topography and water systems of the Northeast, by contrast, were not well suited to large-scale irrigation projects (except on the Mekong River, which would involve major resettlement problems). Controlled irrigation potentially could encompass about 10 percent of the Northeast's 3.5 million hectares of paddy. Beginning in the 1960s, the Royal Irrigation Department, founded in 1904 and largely responsible for development and maintenance of the country's main irrigation systems, constructed 6 large and about 200 small dams in the region. The associated irrigation system contained design defects, and in the mid-1970s improvement was undertaken with World Bank assistance. Part of the irrigable area was receiving water in the early 1980s, but completion of necessary additional work was not anticipated before the late 1980s, at which time about 160,000 hectares would have irrigation throughout the year. *

Irrigation work also began in the 1960s in the Mae Nam Mae Klong Basin, which contained nearly 400,000 irrigable hectares of paddy. Regulated wet-season irrigation was furnished during the 1970s for roughly 175,000 hectares. A multiple dam completed in the late 1970s and a distribution system under way in the 1980s was expected to provide adequate water for double cropping on over 250,000 hectares. Small irrigation projects also were started in the 1960s in the South, on the east coast where more than 500,000 of the region's 600,000 hectares of paddy were located. About 75,000 hectares had supplementary wet-season water, and work under way in the 1980s in the Mae Nam Pattani Basin was expected eventually to serve about 52,000 hectares. *

Organic Farming and Hydroponic Agriculture in Thailand

According to the Thai government: Today agriculture in Thailand strives to respond to the major trend in society: awareness of alternative agriculture that relies on organic farming to escape the former vicious cycle of chemical-intensive agriculture. The conventional way has been shown not only to degrade soil quality but also to leave toxic residues and wreak havoc on natural ecology. The main features of organic farming include soil enrichment, ecological balance, and the ability to combat crop enemies with natural materials of biological origin to enhance plant vigor and resistance to natural enemies, such as diseases and pests. The new agriculture aims to serve the growing health awareness among consumers as well as environmental awareness. The new movement gives rise to chemical-free vegetable cultivation that helps to protect farmers from exposure to pesticides and to improve the ecological conditions of the vegetable garden. Farmers can save energy and reduce investments for crop production and yet are rewarded with chemical-free vegetables that taste so much better, are produced in larger quantities, and are in big demand in domestic and overseas markets. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, =]

Growing chemical-free vegetables combines techniques for protecting plants and destroying vegetable pests in ways that rely on the reduced use of chemicals and thus produce chemical-free vegetable crops. The popular vegetables include varieties of mustard greens and lettuce, shallot, coriander, morning glory, parsley, kale, and mung bean. The leaves of these vegetables may have holes as a result of insect bites, but they keep fresh for quite a long time and taste so much better than chemically treated vegetables. And when they eventually go off, they do not give out strong smells from pesticides.=

In addition, Thai agriculture is turning increasingly to hydroponics, a process of plant cultivation that does not rely on soil for plant growth. The new method represents a timely response to the trend of consumers' demand for pesticide-free vegetables. In the process, plant roots are immersed in water or nutrient solutions. The soil-less cultivation method produces good-quality farm yields that are in big demand. Several agricultural farms in the country are set up specifically to grow cash crops using the hydroponic system. Another system, called "aeroponics" and similar to hydroponics, relies on the spraying of nutrient solutions on the roots periodically throughout a 24-hour period. The method allows plants to receive all the nutrients needed and in sufficient amounts, encouraging speedier plant growth and leading to shorter harvest time and higher yields on a similar scale. =

Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have earmarked billions of dollars for the study and use of biotech crops. Even so in Thailand a law was passed in 1999, that prohibits the importing of GM seeds.

Thailand's Food Industry

Thailand has a large fresh, frozen and semi-cooked food industry. In 2000, it exported over $10 billion worth of food. Among the interestingly-named products you can buy in Thailand are Shrak brand chili peppers, Pigeon brand canned foods and Dragonfly sauce. Bottles of pickled chilies have pictures of sea horse on the labels. Thai farmers and food producers make Western-style foods such as ricotta and mascarpone. Cream cheeses are produced from cows that graze in grasslands around Khao Yai National Park. Thailand’s Chateau Interfarm for a time was Southeast Asia’s only foie grass producer. Most its product was sold to five-star hotels.

According to the Thai government: “Thailand ranks among the top of the world's food producing countries in several food categories, such as rice, cassava, potatoes, sugar, chicken, lobster, canned fish, and fruit. Thailand is therefore considered one of the world's important food exporting countries. The fast-growing demand for food by the world's population bodes well for the limitless expansion of the consumer market.[Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

One Thai entrepreneur hoped to strike it rich, marketing ready-to-eat canned rice. The canned rice came in three varieties—brown, jasmine and glutinous—and could be prepared by placing the can in boiling water for three minutes and emptying the can into a bowl and heating in a microwave oven.

Thailand's Food Industry Products

According to data supplied by the Trade and Economic Information Center, the Ministry of Commerce, the main groups of food export are as follows: 1) Frozen seafood group, such as frozen fresh prawn, fish, fish meat, and squid; canned seafood, such as prawn, crab, and baby clam; processed seafood, such as prawn, squid, fried fish in batter, fish patty, and shrimp patty; and processed seafood, such as sweet and sour shrimp, fried fish, tuna green curry, and tuna phanaeng curry; 2) - Fresh chicken, frozen chicken, and processed chicken group, such as chicken sausage, chicken meatballs, and other chicken-based products; [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

3) Other food groups (including ready-to-eat food and semi-cooked food), such as rice porridge or boiled rice; canned cooked rice; noodles; ready-to-eat egg noodles of myriad flavors in packets, cups, or bowls made of heat-resistant materials; sauces, soy sauce, fish sauce; ready-to-cook curry paste, shrimp paste, processed coconut cream, tom yam (hot-and-spicy soup) mix, ready-to-eat chili pastes; and health and nutritional beverages, such as herbal juices.

4) Halal group, or food and food products for Muslims and prepared as prescribed by Muslim law, that is to say, food that is not to be cooked in a manner, or with anything added to the food, or prepared or processed or preserved with any utensils not allowed by Muslim law; presently there are foodpreparing premises or plants that pass the stringent halal inspection and produce halal food for export to Muslim countries around the world.

5) Frozen vegetable and fruit group, such as asparagus, pineapple, mangosteen, pigeon pea, potato, and baby corn; canned vegetables and fruits, such as beans, asparagus, and sweet corn; pineapple-stuffed rambutan, lychee, longan, and guava; canned fruit in syrup; processed vegetables and fruits, such as desiccated, preserved, crystallized fruits; and vegetable pickles, such as ginger, cucumber, Chinese vegetable pickle, egg plant, and bamboo shoots.

Thai Vegetables and Fruits for Export

In the 1990s, 60 percent of Thailand’s exports were agricultural products. At that time Thailand was that world‘s leading exporter of rice (followed by the U.S. And Vietnam), No. 2 in tapioca (behind Brazil) and fifth in coconuts. Today the percentage of Thailand’s exports that are agricultural products is smaller and it is the No. 3 rice export in world nevertheless agricultural products remain important export items and earners of foreign exchange.

According to the Thai government: In exporting agricultural produce, the exporters of vegetables and fruits must obtain a certificate from the Department of Agriculture under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives guaranteeing that it is chemical-free. The officers of the Department of Agriculture must make a random sample check of the produce before such a certificate can be issued. The amount of sampling depends on the amount of pesticides expected to contaminate the vegetables and fruits. Nevertheless, the vegetables and fruits are likely to undergo another random sample check at the destination country even after the export has been cleared of the chemical contamination at home; this practice varies with the conditions, stringent or otherwise, set by each country. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department =]

Furthermore, the Department of Agriculture issued a directive ordering certain categories of vegetable and fruit exports (whether refrigerated, frozen, or dried, and whether whole, peeled, or sliced, depending on the type of vegetable and fruit) to be subject first to inspection for chemicals by the department even if the importing country does not clearly specify the necessity for producing such a certificate in the first place, in order to ensure that all vegetable and fruit exports to various countries do not run into any trouble. =

Twelve kinds of vegetables and fruits to be sent to the European Union and six other countries— Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Malaysia, and the United States: green okra, ginger (tender and mature), baby corn, chili (including dried chilies and cayenne pepper), asparagus, longan, durian, litchi, mangosteen, mango, tamarind (sweet, sour, and young), and pomelo. Twenty-one kinds of vegetables for export to Japan: kale, phak khayaeng, Asiatic pennywort, phak phraeo, cha-om (acacia), kaffir lime leaves, okra, coriander, fennel, holy basil, sweet basil, lemongrass, mint, parsley, khuenchai, hairy basil, sessile joyweed, Holland bean, cabbage, phak chilao, and water mimosa =

Other agricultural products exported from Thailand include: Frozen vegetables and fruits, such as asparagus, pineapple, mangosteen, pigeon peas, potatoes and baby corn; canned vegetables and fruits, such as various beans, asparagus, and sweet corn, as well as pineapple-stuffed rambutan, litchi, longan, guava, and various kinds of fruits in syrup; processed vegetables and fruits, such as dried, preserved, and crystallized or candied; and pickled vegetables, such as ginger, cucumber, Chinese-style vegetable pickle, eggplant, and bamboo shoots. =

In addition to the standardization and quality measures for the agricultural produce of Thailand, as executed by the Department of Agriculture under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, a consortium is entrusted with the job of regulating and strengthening the export position of Thailand. Composed of the Department of Internal Trade under the Ministry of Commerce, plus other government and private sector agencies, the agencies join hands in setting up the Perishable One Stop Service Export Center of Thailand (POSSEC Thailand). The center aims to find the best options for exporting vegetables and fruits, whose volumes have considerably expanded as a result of free trade agreements, such as the one between Thailand and China, and dealings with other major markets, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, the USA, and the European Union. The center provides a one-stop service, which helps to keep transport costs down by as much as 20 percent for operators. The cost-efficient measure in turn makes Thai produce more competitive in overseas markets. The new center is now open for 24-hour service at Thai Market in Pathum Thani province, and has the capacity to handle 1,000 tons of vegetables and fruit a day. =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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