Prolonged Thailand drought threatens global rice shortage

Copyright: Jason Larkin / Panos

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  • Drought in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, has cut farm output
  • Population growth and economic development will push up demand for food
  • But climate change has resulted in a reduction in rice crop growth and yield

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[KUALA LUMPUR] Prolonged drought in Thailand may lead to a shortage in world rice supply if adaptation methods to raise rice production are not taken, scientists warn.

The drought is putting pressure on Thailand’s economy, the word’s largest rice exporter. Although the nation’s Royal Irrigation Department has estimated rainfall in late July, farmers have been advised to delay planting until August to meet water demands for public consumption.

Shaobing Peng of Huazhong Agriculture University in China believes climate change is now affecting the seasonal weather in Thailand.

“Global mean surface air temperature has increased by 0.5 degree Celsius in the twentieth century and will continue to increase by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius this century. We need to think of more holistic and adaptive measures aside from drought management such as heat-resistant seeds,” adds Peng, a former senior crop physiologist at the International Rice Research Institute.

He says, as an added pressure, world rice production will have to increase by one per cent annually to meet the increasing demand for the commodity.

To adapt to climate change, the Thai government has initiated plans to introduce drought-resistant seeds. But these seeds are not reusable and can be costly to poor farmers who are not receiving direct financial aid. Government-supplied seeds are also limited, forcing farmers to obtain their seeds from private suppliers.

With 60 million rai (960,000 hectares) of land reserved for paddy still barren, many farmers are resorting to secondary crops to make sufficient income.

“Farmers are aware of climate change and they have been complementing their crop production with sugarcane, cucumber, long beans and tilapia. Their main source of income still comes from rice yields, and with only 10 per cent of farmers receiving government-funded seeds, it still leaves the majority saving their seeds from the previous year,” says Jintana Kawasaki from the United Nations University.

Thailand’s rice production problems also have economic and political ramifications. Although agriculture production only accounts for nine per cent of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product), majority of the population rely on agriculture for food and income. In 2014, rice exports accounted for 1.3 per cent of GDP.

Rice exports declined drastically in 2011 when then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration introduced a price support programme.

The policy managed to boost rural income in the short term as the government bought grains from farmers, boosting domestic prices. This resulted in a decline in the value of rice exports, from 200 billion Thai baht in 2011 (US$6 billion) to less than US$4.4 billion in 2012.

“The situation for Thailand’s rice export industry is improving but they are facing competitors from neighbouring countries which offer cheaper prices,” says Luxmon Attapich, senior country economist at the Asian Development Bank’s Thailand resident mission.

The Economic Intelligence Center, the research centre for Siam Commercial Bank, predicts that Thailand’s economic growth forecast might be 0.4 per cent lower this year due to the drought.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.