CHAI NAT – In a bid to diversify away from mass rice production and get better access to the lucrative market for organic food products, Thailand has set up a six-year strategy for organic agricultural production that includes penetration of international markets including the Middle East.
Especially smaller and family farms are encouraged to grow and sell organic rice, as well as vegetables and fruits on their own and seek new market channels for it.
Acknowledging that demand for organic rice is especially growing in Muslim countries – where it is appreciated as healthy food with low sugar content that goes nice with Arab dishes – organic farmers are increasingly seeking halal certification for their rice to get access to those markets.
One of these farmers is Sittichai Ruenpakdan, who runs the Family Hydro Farm in Thailand’s central Chai Nat province, an area where 90% of locals are engaged in agriculture and, in the past, the widespread and heavy use of chemical fertilizers in mass rice production has led to environmental and health problems.
Sittichai, who lost his job as a human relations manager at a Thai company as it was closed down when the disastrous floods hit the country in 2011, has since built up a small but profitable family business and produces around 40 tonnes of organic rice a year which sells for a multiple of normal rice.
“We are selling the rice through organic shops in Thailand, but we will also sell it to Saudi Arabia soon after we get the halal certification,” Sittichai said.
“Our target is to sell more of the organic rice to the Middle East, as well as to the Muslim South of Thailand,” he added.
According to Anupa Panyadilok, head of the Learning and Development Center for the New Generation of Farmers in Chai Nat, around 60% of farmers in the area have already turned to organic farming.
“This province has the aim to become Thailand’s largest organic rice-producing area,” she said. Organic rice in Thailand is grown and processed without the use of any synthetic chemicals as found, for example, in fertilizers, insecticides, preservatives, seed treatment or hormones.
Currently, only specially selected high-quality jasmine rice is planted organically although other types of rice are also looked at as the number of health-conscious consumers is growing rapidly.
To that end, the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives has worked out the National Organic Agriculture Strategies 2015-2021 to make Thai organic agriculture products better known in both local and international markets.
The strategies aim at spreading knowledge and innovation in organic agriculture, developing organic agricultural production throughout the supply chain, expanding marketing and improving the standards of Thai agricultural products. Sales partnerships are also welcomed and could include foreign partners, namely for the Middle East markets.
Such sales partnerships will be essential for the success of Thai organic rice as most farmers are struggling to find channels to sell the rice. In Sittichai’s case, he is relying on social networks, but will have to forge a sales partnership for the Middle East market.
In fact, organic agriculture has become a major policy theme in Thailand since 2001 when the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra started agricultural development programmes to improve living conditions for the rural population.
Organic farming was enlisted as an “important national agenda” to promote safe food and boost national export. Many government authorities have since initiated projects and activities centred around organic farming. In addition, farmers have joined hands in setting up organic agricultural learning centres and developing agro-tourism sites for visitors.