While most of Thailand’s farmers are on the brink of poverty, one province named Surin has prospered from organic rice exports. Four decades ago the Buddhist monk Luang Paw Nan launched a campaign in Thailand’s Surin province to reduce poverty among farmers by encouraging them to grow organic jasmine rice, the fragrant variety of the staple grain that grows primarily in the country’s northeastern region, known locally as Isan. The ascetic encouraged about 100 families, insisting that they also abide by strict Buddhist precepts as a means of keeping their expenses low. Today, Surin is famed for its organic Jasmine rice both in Thailand and abroad. The province was recently cited by the World Bank as an example of dramatic poverty reduction, attributed in part to good working coordination between the government, farmers and civil society in implementing programs such as organic rice farming.
The World Bank attempts to identify the policies needed to reduce poverty among the so-called lower strata of the population, the 14 million Thais who live on less than US$6.20 a day. For an upper middle-income country, Thailand has around 40 percent of the national work force, i.e. about 14.6 million people employed in agriculture which is unusually large number. To eradicate poverty and move up to the elusive higher income status, Thailand needs either to do something about improving productivity and profitability in the agricultural sector or get more people out of farming and into other business sectors. “In Surin they involved civil society and non-government stakeholders in a major way in programs,” said Ulrich Zachau, World Bank country Director for Southeast Asia adding that Production of organic jasmine rice was one of those programs.
The World Bank predicted well about civil society playing an important role in Surin’s organic rice success but less so about government involvement. In Surin, organic rice farmers now receive 15 baht/Kg of paddy, compared with the market price of 9 baht/Kg for non-organic jasmine. Since they are not paying for costly chemical inputs, an organic farmer can earn about 80,000 baht (US$2,285) per crop, on an average sized farm of 2.4 hectares. What the Surin example demonstrates best is that the government, in general, should stay out of marketing and procurement in the agricultural sector but rather invest in infrastructure and research, and abolish trade-restricting regulations. The bigger demographic picture is that Thailand has too many rice farmers for what appears to be a shrinking market. Local per capita consumption of the grain is on the decline as Thais become wealthier and exporters face steeper competition from lower cost rice exporting countries. To compete, Thailand will ultimately need to move toward larger scale rice farms, at least in the central plains that have access to irrigation. But the government will need to devise a mechanism that makes farmers pay for water and improved irrigation systems to make large-scale rice farms economically viable.