Thai rice feels the strain
For second year running, flagship export misses out on top taste prize
Failing to win the prize as the world's best fragrant rice for two consecutive years has come as a wake-up call for Thailand to overhaul its research and development into Hom Mali rice varieties to catch up with the changing global demand for fragrant rice.
After winning the contest for five consecutive years, Thailand's Hom Mali (jasmine) rice was beaten last year by Cambodia's fragrant rice and this year by Vietnam's ST25 variety.
"It's about time that both the government and the private sector joined hands in a more serious effort to improve the quality of Thai rice to meet the global market's expectations," said Charoen Laothamatas, president of Thai Rice Exporters Association.
Unlike two decades ago when Thailand was the world's major rice exporter and could sell well whatever rice it produced, the number of competitors is growing, he said.
"The country's reputation for producing quality rice is suffering due to a lack of effective research and development to create better varieties of Thai Hom Mali rice," he said.
Higher costs, lower yield
The strong baht also has exacerbated the rice export situation, he said, adding that it has pushed the price of Thai rice more than US$1,100 higher per tonne than its competitors, he said.
As a result, Vietnam, for instance, is gaining a larger market share in the global rice trade, as it can sell its rice for half the price that Thailand can, he said.
Vietnam won this year's competition because it has continued developing its rice varieties to improve both quality and crop yield, he said, adding the country has been continually upgrading its fragrant rice and is now up to a 25th iteration.
Thailand, on the other hand, has stuck to its old varieties such as Thai Hom Mali and Pathum Thani 1 and has not created any new strains for a long time, he said.
The yield of Thai rice is about 400 kilogrammes per rai, which is fairly low when compared with the 1,000kg-per-rai yield of Vietnam's rice, he said.
And while buyers in the world market are now looking for rice with a soft texture, the Thai rice remains as hard as it was many years ago, he said.
Despite the development of some new softer varieties, the work of promoting these among rice growers has been slow and far from successful, he said.
This has left exporters unable to respond to demand for rice with a soft texture, he said.
Worse still, he said, the stronger baht has crippled exporters' ability to compete with their counterparts in other rice-growing countries.
"If nothing is done to improve this problem, Thai Hom Mali rice will soon become a thing of the past," Mr Charoen said.
When consumers in those countries get used to the taste of cheaper rice from other rice exporting countries, it will become highly difficult for Thailand to regain a foothold, he said.
Seeking a solution
Nipon Poapongsakorn, a distinguished fellow with Thailand Development Research Institute, said one way to help bring the price down is to slash production costs by increasing the yield, he said.
"Thailand may consider developing a rice variety that is less fragrant yet gives a higher yield for the sake of cost-cutting," he said.
The yield of the off-season crop needs to rise to at least 1,000kg per rai, he said, adding that China's hybrid rice variety now yields up to 2,000kg per rai.
The government should also consider giving more incentives for people to study to become researchers, he said.
China, for instance, offers researchers a handsome share of income earned through intellectual property fees, on top of high salaries for researchers in the civil service, he said.
Instead of boasting that Thai rice is better than products from other countries, Thailand should pay more attention to meeting the changing expectations of rice buyers in the world market, he said.
Mr Charoen blamed Thailand's lack of rice variety development on politicians competing to win farmers' support only through price guarantees or other types of price intervention.
"These policies have failed to give any incentive for research and development into new varieties.
"As farmers are satisfied with these price intervention policies, they are no longer interested in improving the quality or yield.
"The priority here is to speed up development a Hom Mali rice variety with a yield of at least 800kg per rai, which will help to lower production costs," he said.
"The problem is that Thailand's rice research centres are using outdated tools and full of old researchers. So, to cope with this problem the government should make rice research a national agenda," he said.
Little support for R&D
The current 200-300 million baht yearly budget for research is far from sufficient to attract capable and talented researchers, according to Mr Nipon.
"Thailand's competitors are spending far more money on their rice research," he said.
"The research budget was only 238.6 million baht last year , yet the gross domestic product generated through rice trade was as much as 140 billion baht," he said.
The director-general of the Rice Department declined to comment on issues surrounding the Thai rice production.
Not just the strains
Tanee Sreewongchai, associate dean for Research and Innovation in the Department of Agronomy at Kasetsart University's Faculty of Agriculture, said Thai Jasmine rice was developed from "Khao Dok Mali 105" and "Kor Khor 15", and resulted in intense fragrance, soft texture and long grains.
But this was in 1959, he said, and since then there has been no effort to improve on it, despite the ever more desirable strains being produced by Thailand's competitors.
However, the Department of Rice is now attempting to develop it further to increase its yield and make it more disease and weather resistant.
This is because, he added, Thai jasmine rice was developed from native rice with an average yield of only 350kg per rai. Another challenging issue is that Thai farmers have high costs of production compared with competitors like Vietnam and Cambodia.
"The problem is not related to the Thai rice strain, but it might be related to harvesting and packing procedures that destroy the quality and fragrance, a report by our department has shown," he said.
He said exporters are aware of the problem and try to keep stored harvested rice at optimal temperatures to maintain the fragrance.
However, he admitted that Vietnam is now a real rival as it can produce better rice at lower prices.
Mr Charoen said that at the moment, Thai Hom Mali rice's popularity in the global market remains high despite its losses in the rice contest in the past two years, which means Thailand still has some time if it intends to accelerate its research and development.
Meanwhile, Boonrue Chantarangsri, coordinator of the Knowledge Management and Farmer School Network Foundation in Nakhon Sawan, prefers to ignore the annual contest, saying that it is down to a subjective judgement in flavour.
He said that his department has collected domestic rice strains, which can be further developed for higher quality in terms of texture and nutrients for consumers who are concerned about health.
He prefers the metric of market share in order to determine the success, or otherwise, of Thai jasmine rice.
And as of August 2019, Thailand was the second-largest exporter of rice in the world, ranked only behind India, but far ahead of all of its Southeast Asian competitors.