Thailand returns to roots as food exports soar

Thailand returns to roots as food exports soar

Ducks feed on a rice field outside Bangkok on May 2, 2020. (Reuters photo)
Ducks feed on a rice field outside Bangkok on May 2, 2020. (Reuters photo)

Thailand is returning to its economic roots as a food producer, with overseas demand for rice, seafood, fruit and other edibles bolstering exports even as the Covid-19 pandemic dents production and shipments of manufactured goods.

The proportion of food- and agricultural-related exports to total shipments jumped to 19.7% in April, their highest level in eight years, Pimchanok Vonkorpon, director-general of the Commerce Ministry’s trade policy and strategy office, said in an interview Monday, even as total exports fell 3.3% that month.

Fresh, frozen and processed foods, plus crops and other agricultural products, generally have accounted for 15%-16% of overseas sales in recent years, she said.

“This may be a new normal for Thai exports,” Ms Pimchanok said, adding that food and agricultural exports could surpass 20% of the total this year, with that level “likely to continue for quite some time.”

“Even though this proportion can’t offset falling industrial shipments, it helps millions of people because of the long supply chain in the farm and food sectors,” she said.

Thailand has long been a major exporter of an array of commodities such as rice, tapioca, sugar and pineapples. Some companies have also become world leaders in ready-to-cook meals, food processing and quality control.

Those value-added technologies offer hope to millions of farmers and food producers this year, when the economy faces its worst contraction in more than two decades. Thailand received no foreign tourists or related spending in April, according to official data, as borders were kept closed to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.

Among Thailand’s biggest agro-industrial companies is Charoen Pokphand Foods Plc, which generated 73% of its 138 billion baht of revenue in the January-March quarter from abroad. Its motto, the “kitchen of the world”, highlights divisions ranging from animal breeding to food processing, and frozen-meat shipments to prepared meals.

Thai Union Group Plc, which owns seafood brands including Chicken of the Sea and John West, is another leading food exporter.

More key points:

Electronics exports will see an up-tick later this year amid supply-chain adjustments stemming from US-China trade friction; the work-from-home trend will also boost demand, she said

Auto exports may improve as removal of lockdowns eases logistics and some people turn to cars rather than mass transit

The baht is unlikely to strengthen much because of the weak economy and low interest rates

Exports may still contract this year, but not sharply, she said

A rise in oil prices would boost oil-related products, which account for 11.5% of total exports, Ms Pimchanok said

Thailand may enter technical deflation in May if the consumer price index contracts for a third straight month

Most prices of consumer products have barely changed, in line with weak demand, but CPI has been dragged down by energy prices

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