Thailand: Boosting agricultural quality

A new set of agricultural strategies for the 2012-16 period were approved by the Thai cabinet at a meeting in mid-March, with much of the focus placed on improving food sustainability, promoting the cultivation of high-quality produce and enhancing international competitiveness.

The agriculture sector accounted for more than 11% of GDP in 2009, the last year for which statistics were available. Thailand is a major exporter of a number of food products; it was the world’s top exporter of rice in 2009 and was set to reach a record sugar yield in 2010-11, with production predicted to climb as high as 9.47m tonnes between November 2010 and November 2011.

Following a drop in exports across the economy in late 2011 due to flooding in large portions of the country, the first quarter of 2012 has seen renewed growth, with agriculture exports giving a particularly strong showing. Fruit and vegetable exports grew by 7.2% year-on-year (y-o-y), sugar exports increased by 94.5% and seafood by 21.4%, local media reported.

The cabinet’s plan aims to further expand the contribution of agriculture to the Thai economy, as the sector has long been a main source of employment for the local population. The plan specifies that the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives will seek to partner with foreign governments and international organisations in research and development, as well as further technology initiatives.

The government has said it will seek to address protectionist trade measures that have been put in place by foreign countries, which often prevent Thailand from exporting its agricultural products due to the competition fears of other governments.

These goals could mean the establishment of more trade agreements, particularly within the region. An 11-year farming agreement has already been signed with Burma, Cambodia, China, and Laos; the agreement will see China import BT2.4bn ($78m) worth of rubber from the other countries. In addition, 10 Thai companies have reached cooperation agreements worth $4.16bn with Chinese businesses, widening the markets for the export of a variety of products, including fresh vegetables.

With exports of food staples making up such a significant portion of the Thai economy, farmers have generally taken to using chemicals and fertilisers to ensure their crops survive. Over the course of the last decade, imports of pesticides to Thailand have tripled, and the effects have not gone unnoticed by the country’s trade partners. Importers of Thai produce are beginning to raise health concerns, and last year the EU threatened to ban imports from Thailand after discovering that Thai produce carried dangerously high levels of pesticides.

As such, Thailand is taking steps to improve its food standards and decrease its use of agrochemicals. In early March, the Department of Agriculture (DoA) began pushing for a ban on two chemicals, EPN and dicotrophos, citing environmental and public health risks. After a meeting with representatives of the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-PAN), Jirakorn Kosaisewee, the director-general at the DoA, added that two further pesticides, carbofuran and methomyl, could also be banned after further testing.

“In principle, the DoA agreed that all four chemicals should not be used, but we need reliable reports to back our proposal to ban two of them,” Jirakorn said, though he added that current testing evidence only supports the ban of EPN and dicotrophos.

According to local media, the DOA is planning to hold public hearings on the proposed bans. The hearings would be followed by a proposal to the Hazardous Substances Committee, which would officially ban the chemicals. Thai-PAN began discussing the ban of the four pesticides in late 2011 as the DOA was registering chemicals for use in the country. According to Jirakorn, none of the four pesticides under discussion had yet been registered.

In an effort to combat the negative effects of pesticides on the farming industry, the Agriculture Land Reform Office (ALRO) has been promoting organic farming training programmes for local farmers. In 1996, officers from the ALRO, boosted by Japanese funding, began working to establish an organic farming network, which today includes around 900 farmers, who are now well-versed in the skills necessary to cultivate pesticide-free produce.

While no further moves have been made to expand the ALRO organic education programme, the recent calls for chemical-free produce from Thailand’s trade partners could press the government to consider supporting similar initiatives.

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