Thailand to set aside more land for farming

It plans to increase rice production and stop conversion of agricultural land
Nirmal Ghosh, Straits Times 24 Apr 08;

BANGKOK - THAILAND is moving to devote more land to agricultural use in the face of rising grain prices.

It plans to increase rice-growing areas from about 9.2 million ha to 9.7 million ha.

This would boost this year's projected padi yields from 28.06 million tonnes to 30 million tonnes, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The additional land includes 162,000ha of government land, to be leased to farmers.

The government said it will spend more than 10 billion baht (S$430 million) over 12 years to put the brakes on conversion of agricultural land to industry, residential use or golf courses.

The new emphasis on bio-fuel, however, would remain, officials said.

But, in the first two years, the agricultural sector would be restructured into 'crop allocation zones', said Agriculture Minister Somsak Prissananantakul, according to state media.

The Cabinet on Tuesday set up a cross-ministerial food crisis committee, headed by Commerce Minister Mingkwan Saengsuwan, to work on the new agricultural strategy.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej told reporters: 'I have asked the Finance Ministry to consider how to develop the government's own land for farm use so Thailand will still be the world's kitchen.'

Figures on agricultural land from various government departments appear to vary but in general they point to a fall in agricultural acreage in recent years because of conversion to alternative land uses.

The government intends to reverse this trend. In this, farmers may help, with high grain prices prompting them to expand acreage under cultivation anyway.

In some areas, farmers will also be encouraged to grow two crops - which in effect doubles acreage.

But growing two crops depends on irrigation and the specific variety of the crops. Drought could also hamper efforts to grow more.

The Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department said this week that 55 of Thailand's 76 provinces, covering more than 24,300ha of farmland, were struggling with drought conditions.

Expanding irrigation has long been cited as the key to increasing agricultural productivity, with experts agreeing that irrigation efficiency in Thailand must be improved.

The problem has become more acute, with competition for water from the industrial and urban sectors, and more recently from biofuels.

'The government has to... come up with systematic management for the rice sector as well as irrigation and water systems and crop yield improvement,' Mr Sumeth Laomoraporn, executive vice-president for international trade at Charoen Pokphand, Thailand's largest conglomerate, told reporters this week.

Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice. Prices of the grain, which is a staple for half the world, have risen by 68 per cent on the futures markets since the beginning of this year.