Thailand is predominantly an agricultural country with a land area of 513 115 sq. Km and a population of around 62 million. The agricultural sector comprises mainly of small farms, 5.1 million in number, and farmers engaged in agriculture constitute 59.66 percent of the total population. The growth rate of the gross domestic product (GDP) from agriculture improved from -4.6 percent in 1990 to 5.5 percent in 1994. GDP per worker from the agricultural sector and non-agricultural sector in 1994 was reported to be US$ 494 and US$ 6 230 respectively.
Of the country's total land area of 51.08 million hectares, approximately 20.8 million ha (41 percent) was classified as arable land, 0.8 million has as permanent pasture, 13.5 million ha (26 percent) as forest and woodland, and 15.989 million ha (31 percent) was un classified land in 1994.
There has been a steady decrease in the size of farm holdings with a corresponding increase in the number of farms and total population. These farm holdings are broadly classified into rice (11.01 million ha), upland crops (5.25 million ha), fruit and tree crops (3.33 million ha), vegetables and flowers (0.14 million ha) and pasture (0.12 million ha). Irrigation facilities are available for 21 percent of the total arable area. The agricultural base comprising of 5.1 million farming families are engaged in the production of food for domestic consumption as well as for export. Crop production remains the major agricultural activity, but the share of the country's GDP has been steadily decreasing in recent years and currently contributes only half of what is achieved in the manufacturing and service sectors.
Until the advent of the recent economic crisis, the agricultural sector had been able to keep in line with the increase in population. In general, food production levels exceeded consumption, and the excess produce of certain commodities was exported. It is, however, a matter of concern that there could be shortages of food for the poorer classes of the rural population, especially those who do not have the purchasing power to feed themselves. Malnutrition among the nutritionally vulnerable groups is also receiving greater attention from national planners. Thailand has vast natural resources and adequate human potential to increase productivity of the food crop sector. With the right policies and latest technologies, sustainable agriculture and food security can be attained to revive the agriculture GDP and feed the population.
The climatic conditions prevailing in the country are conducive to vegetable production. The central part of the country is tropical and receives most of its precipitation from the Southwest monsoon from May to October. Annual rainfall ranges from 695 mm to 4 160 mm. The Northeast monsoon that operates from November to March brings rain to the South, and the rest of the country receives cool dry weather from winds that originate in China.
The Climate in the North is near sub-tropical with conditions favorable for the production of cool-season crops almost throughout the year. The Northern latitudes of the country receive nearly 14 hours of day length in summer, while the rest of the country in the South receives around 13 hours during this period. In the winter months, day length duration is slightly below the 12-hours photoperiod. Consequently, the Northern regions of the country offer better prospects for the increased productivity in many crops including vegetables, due to higher net assimilation rates from the long-day effect, as well as from the higher diurnal range of temperature and greater heat unit accumulation at higher elevations.
The agricultural sector comprises mostly of small farmers engaged in farming and fishing. Until recently,the level of food production was adequate for the country to feed itself. The country has advanced technologically, and with the right policies and use of its vast natural resources, the country's farmers have been able to achieve sufficiency in the production of cereals, staple substitutes, oil crops, legumes and horticultural commodities. With the advent of the Asian economic crisis, some concern has been expressed with regard to stability of the agricultural sector and the ability to continue with the food surpluses the country has been achieving. The drop in the economy has affected somewhat the small farmers, who depend heavily on their production base for their livelihood. With the projected increase in the population to around 90 million within the next 20 years, planners are sceptical whether food production can be kept ahead of domestic consumption with the use of currently available technologies and without the active involvement of the country's farming community. Socio-economic conditions in the rural sector and the ability to maintain the purchasing power of low-income groups to sustain equitable food security and nutrition is a matter of deep concern. Since the land area available for agriculture is progressively shrinking, the only possibility is a vertical increase in production and productivity using newly developed technologies and better crop husbandry techniques.
Despite the country's vast natural resources, the per capita availability of arable land is decreasing with the increase in population. For instance, arable land decreased from 45 percent in 1993 to 41 percent in 1994. The forest cover has shown a slight decrease from 27 percent in 1993 to 26 percent in 1994. Pasture land and non-agricultural land has however remained relatively unchanged. Hence, high yields per unit area can be achieved in the small farm sector only through the production of crops like vegetables, which have far greater productivity than other crops. The yield per unit area can be increased many times by application of the appropriate technologies such as irrigation, use of high quality seed and the application of appropriate agronomic techniques. In comparision to a pulse crop or cereal, vegetables can give yields as high as 10–30 tons/ha.
There are several kinds of commercial vegetables grown and consumed locally, a brief description of which is included in Appendix 1. Many indigenous species and their edible portions are also utilized as vegetables nation wide (Appendix 2). In addition, there are vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, head cabbage, tomato, ginger and shallot that are either grown or processed for export. The agro-climatic conditions prevailing in the country make it possible to produce vegetables throughout the year, and consequently, fresh vegetables are readily available in the local markets. Fresh vegetable exports find their way to neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, while the processed vegetables are exported to the USA, Japan. Hong Kong and countries of Europe. Private seed company entrepreneurs based in Northeast Thailand have also developed a lucrative business in the export of F1 hybrid seed of tomato and other vegetables.
The contribution from vegetables (covering 2.8 percent of the arable crop area) to total crop production in Thailand was only nine percent in 1997 (Table 1). Although the country may produce sufficient to remain in a food surplus situation at present, the low economic status of rural and urban communities who are nutritionally vulnerable, may pose a serious problem if the smaller production units are not given adequate attention. Vegetable cultivation is part and parcel of rural and peri-urban living in the country. Increasing production through appropriate intervention programs would be the most logical strategy for achieving food security. This would require the infrastructure developers, rural development planners, agricultural scientists and extension personnel, credit and input supply agencies, post-harvest handling and marketing specialists, to help small farmers increase the efficiency of their production systems. Food security and better nutrition can be achieved by increasing agricultural productivity and by higher income generation, to improve the purchasing power of impoverished communities.
Table 1. Crop production statistics - 1997
|Crop||Area in 1 000 rai|
|Percent of total arable area||Production|
(in 1 000 tons)
|Total||17 015||100.0||56 916||100.0|
Source : FAO 1998.
* DOAE calculated statistics
Vegetable production is essentially a small-farm venture that benefits thousands of families in urban, peri-urban and rural communities. Growing vegetables provides self-employment to families who are engaged in all aspects of the business: propogation, production, harvesting, preparation for the market, and even selling. In recent years however, production costs have increased by about 50–60 percent. Most farmers are compelled to use family labour in order to cut costs and remain competitive in local markets. High costs compel resource-poor farmers in limiting their inputs, such as fertilizer and agro-chemicals resulting often in crop losses and lower outputs. Growers are also forced to use open pollinated varieties and traditional land races since they are unable to purchase hybrid seed that can give much higher yields and incomes. Market gardeners and peri-urban growers on the other hand, use intensive production systems around the periphery of large cities to maximize outputs from small plots of land. Often, there is an overuse of harmful chemicals, which endanger the health of consumers and pollute the environment. In the peri-urban and irrigated areas including Pathumthani, Nonthaburi, Nakhonpathom, Ratchaburi, Nakhon Ratchasima, Chiang Mai, Songkhla, etc., the main source of income is from vegetable cultivation. In times of food shortages, vegetables provide sustainability and food security when other sources of food are scarce.