Make Thai rice great again

Make Thai rice great again

The failure of Thailand's signature jasmine rice, Thai Hom Mali, to win back the World's Best Rice award two years in a row, is a wake-up call for the government to start taking Thailand's rice development seriously.

Earlier this month, an organic rice strain from Vietnam's Soc Trang province, ST24, was named the World's Best Rice at The Rice Trader (TRT) World Rice Conference in Manila, the Philippines, where a panel of international judges inspected and evaluated the aroma, taste, texture and shape of each participating rice variety.

The ST24 strain, Vietnamese rice experts say, is a high-yield variety that can be harvested 2-3 times each year. It produces long, white grains which give off the aroma of pineapples. ST24, they say, can yield up to 8.5 tonnes per hectare, or about 1,300 kg per rai.

Last year, a premium fragrant variety from Cambodia, Malys Angkor, won the honour.

Both countries have managed to take the crown away from Thailand's jasmine rice, which has received the honour five times in total -- including a back-to-back win in 2016 and 2017.

The loss does not reflect a decline in the quality of our rice. Instead, it reflects the lack of further research and development of Thai rice varieties, especially when substantial improvements have been made by our neighbouring countries.

While this year is only the first time a variety from Vietnam won the award, it shows that rice strains from Vietnam could potentially become a highly-competitive rival to the Hom Mali in the international market. This is especially true when costs are considered -- Vietnamese rice are considerably cheaper, especially given the baht's continued appreciation.

Thai Hom Mali goes for about US$1,100-1,200 (about 33,280 to 36,300 baht) per tonne, while a similar strain from Vietnam is priced at about $600 per tonne, according to Thai Rice Exporters Association.

Furthermore, Vietnamese crops have better yields per rai. For example, the average rice crop in Thailand yields about 450 kilogrammes per rai, while in Vietnam, the average yield per rai can be as high as 800-1,000 kg per rai.

Thailand's jasmine rice can still compete with Vietnamese rice in the world, thanks to the reputation it built over the past two decades. But how long can a country's rice industry rely on old reputation without further development amid tougher competition?

The honorary president of Thai Rice Exporters Association, Chookiat Ophaswongse, said that without further R&D that can help improve yields and meet popular demand, Thai Hom Mali will disappear from the world's rice markets within five years.

While Thailand exported more than 11 million tonnes of rice last year, generating more than 180 billion baht in revenue, the country spent much less on R&D for rice variety improvement, roughly around 200-300 million baht a year.

The government seems to pay more attention on digital trends and national security rather than agricultural development, despite the fact that the agriculture sector -- particularly rice production -- has always been the backbone of the country's economy. Thailand also do not give out incentives to attract a new generation of rice researchers, resulting in the low number of rice research.

With these challenges in mind, the government should set rice development as a national agenda item.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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