Agriculture 4.0: Obstacles and how to break through
Thailand 4.0 is the Thai government's new economic model aimed at pulling the country out of the middle-income trap. For agriculture, it means a seven-fold increase in average annual income of farmers from 56,450 baht to 390,000 baht within the next 20 years -- an extremely difficult, if not impossible objective to be achieved -- a task that would require a drastic shift in strategy to encourage adaptation and adoption of modern technologies.
In the past, Thai farmers have been receptive to technologies and innovations. By the late 20th century, Thailand had progressed from subsistence agriculture to agribusiness, and then to an industrialising economy. Manned by surplus labour and abundant land in rural regions, industrial agriculture took a turn and employed new crop varieties, non-organic fertilisers, and machinery to increase farm productivity and yields.
One of the key traits leading past success was Thai ingenuity. Farmers actively improved the qualities of fruit varieties in response to consumer demand. Local firms were able to adapt imported machinery to match local farm conditions and further export the modified versions to other low-income countries. Hired services and rental markets, particularly for combined harvesters, emerged and have since developed into a full-fledged practice that allows farmers to share the costs.
Today, more than 90% of agricultural households in Thailand use machinery. Rice production has been mechanised throughout the entire process. Farm mechanisation in Thailand has reached saturation point where further increases in productivity become difficult. Introducing technological change also faces difficulties as research spending on agriculture dropped significantly from 0.9% of agriculture GDP in 1994 to only 0.2% today.
Governments for the past decade have turned their backs on technological advances in favour of populist policies that gained votes. Agriculture 4.0 has to change this direction entirely and focus on technological developments and their commercialisation -- particularly with precision agriculture (PA), agricultural robotics, and biotechnology.
PA -- the so-called "internet of plants and fields" -- is a farming management concept that collects and processes bio-physical, weather, and farm data to optimise productivity. Through computer-based algorithms, precision agriculture represents the digital version of a farm that virtually replicates variability in crop response. This "cyber-twin" can precisely identify the problems and notify farmers while presenting them with solutions and the likely outcomes at computer speed.
Around the world, precision agriculture has developed at a varying pace. The first versions of PA were introduced in the early 1980s, in the form of input recommendation maps for fertiliser and pH corrections. This was largely accomplished through manual labour to vary farm inputs and monitor changes. Today, precision agriculture covers over million hectares around the world, thanks to the advent of GPS and satellite imageries.
In Thailand, precision agriculture is already gaining traction among larger farms. The Mitr Phol Group, a large sugar and bio-energy producer, already uses surveillance drones and satellite imagery to monitor sugarcane productivity. The farms' mono-cropping pattern is split into rows no larger than 1.85 metres to accommodate a fleet of harvesters that use onboard GPS receivers and real-time kinematics to optimise the harvest.
In Betagro's chicken farms, temperature, moisture, and lighting are precisely controlled in a closed environment in conjunction with an automatic feeding system. Similarly, CPF's prawn farms have applied precision to the water circulation systems to save energy and meet food safety standards. Precision control also serves as a countermeasure against the early mortality syndrome (EMS) that was plaguing the prawn industry.
Currently, Rangsit University is testing a PA solution for Hom Pathum Rice in Kanchanaburi province. Two years after implementation, the results are impressive. Local farmers are able to increase their yields by 27% from 878kg per rai to 1,118kg per rai. This looks very promising for an important crop that constitutes nearly 50% of all cultivated area in Thailand.
Unfortunately, PA technologies are not at a stage to make a disruptive impact in Thailand. The cost of technology is still too high to justify additional productivity gains of small farms. This is highly problematic since the majority of Thai farms are small-scale -- 43% of them are smaller than 10 rai, and another 25% are between 10-20 rai. Though the costs of measuring equipment such as sensors and drones have come down significantly, the costs of transmitting the data and that of developing mobile apps to aid farmers' decision is still too expensive for smallholders.
To address this scale-to-cost effectiveness, the cost of technology must be significantly lowered, or farmers must group up to create larger farms. The choice between these two has to reflect technical limitations and the economic considerations that vary from crop to crop, and farm to farm.
The path toward agriculture 4.0 requires funding from the government to monitor emerging technologies and best practices around the world -- to determine the feasibility of applying those technologies in Thailand and how best to modify them to match local applications. This should be a continuous and systematic process that is open to the public to showcase opportunities for private investments in agricultural technologies.
Private involvement is key to modernising small farms. Aside from selling technologies and providing services to farmers, there is also the potential for exporting innovations and know-how. The government should not compete in this space, but rather move to a supporting role that provides Board of Investment incentives, develops new work forces, and facilitation via knowledge transfer and data sharing.
Good quality, relevant and timely data enables businesses to extend targeted services into communities and allow PA to thrive. Fortunately, the Electronic Government Agency is on its way to revolutionising public data, but more effort will be needed to bolster the agricultural dataset -- such as real-time weather information and irrigation schedules, agricultural trade intelligence, environmental data, and satellite-based productivity monitoring. Opening up this data to the public is a necessary policy that will stimulate private firms and start-ups to quickly exploit it for more business ventures, providing information services to farmers at competitive prices.
Ultimately, Thai agriculture will need a catalyst for change, in the form of a multi-stakeholder partnership platform that brings together companies, the government, universities, non-governmental organisations, and farmers to drive the technological transformation -- providing and sharing access to information, technology, markets and finance. This kind of platform is vital to foster competition that can bring down costs and prevent unfair treatment of poor farmers. Moreover, it will give stakeholders more bargaining power to correct the government's policies, and speed up much-needed progress.
Nipon Poapongsakorn, PhD, is a distinguished scholar at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Phunjasit Chokesomritpol is a TDRI researcher. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.