Farmland zoning could lead to lower crop subsidies
Annual losses of more than Bt100 billion from the rice-pledging scheme, the ongoing Bt45-billion programme to shore up rubber prices, or the Bt30-billion corn subsidies for this year: All these could be narrowed, if not abolished, thanks to farmland zoning.Agriculture Minister Yukol Limlaemthong believes the zoning, if implemented at full scale, will revolutionise the country's agricultural sector.
Noting that it is a complementary part of the Bt2.27-trillion logistics investment plan, Yukol emphasised that farmland zoning would be crucial for Thailand in the AEC era when free flows of agricultural goods would be activated.
"We need to implement farmland zoning now. Otherwise, when the Asean Economic Community materialises, Thai crops and related industries will be at a disadvantage," he said.
Under the plan, farmers will learn which zones are appropriate for which crops, boost their productivity, and bolster Thailand's competitiveness. Meanwhile, the logistics development will provide convenient material sourcing among industrialists.
Because of the approaching AEC, Thai farmers must prepare themselves well to compete against peers from nearby countries. Located in the same climatic region, most Asean nations can grow the same crops as Thailand, including rice and rubber trees.
Yukol said the farmland-zoning plan would seek to offer incentives to farmers who plant the right economic crops in the right zones. Guidelines prepared by the Agriculture Ministry have identified which zones are best for which of the country's six main economic crops.
"Definite-ly, they are free to choose the types of crops they want to grow on their land. But we plan to give incentives so that they choose the right ones for their own benefit and also for the country as a whole," Yukol said.
According to the ministry, each rai of appropriate paddy fields can deliver 700 kilograms of rice (or 4,375 kg per hectare). If farmers grow rice in inappropriate zones, yield could fall by half. This explains why Vietnam - which is taking Thailand's place as the world's largest rice exporter - has an average yield of 862kg per rai, against a Thai yield of 448kg.
At present, Thailand's rice-plantation area is 58.9 million rai (about 9.4 million hectares), but only 12.2 million rai is found to be the most appropriate for this crop. Moderately suitable paddy fields account for up to 37.6 million rai while 9 million rai is declared the least suitable.
Yukol said the ministry had issued an announcement on recommended farmland zoning related to the six main economic crops - rice, cassava, rubber, oil palm, sugar cane and corn. In the next step, the announcement will be circulated among provincial governors for further action.
"Through this, we seek to prevent the oversupply of agricultural produce," he said. "Eventually, this could also be used as a way to reduce agricultural subsidies."
Given that about 30 million workers - and voters - are in the agricultural sector, subsidies for farmers have been part of policies of all Thai governments, whichever party leads them. But according to Yukol, subsidies to farmers who grow crops on land declared least suitable for the crops could be cut.
Academics have also urged governments to divert subsidies to finance research and development on plantation techniques and tools, to boost farmers' income.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has previously lamented that Thailand's agricultural output has dropped. She vowed that her government would launch several measures such as farmland zoning in a bid to shore up farmers' productivity. Others include the plan for a single national map (from more than 20 used by different agencies) as well as the plan to improve efficiency of government land.
Yukol hopes the agricultural |sector will one day become so advanced that a watermelon could be traced to its original source, as Japan can do. If the farmland zoning is a success, the government hopes to apply the same concept to the fishery industry, he added.
He said his ministry would work closely with relevant agencies in implementing farmland zoning using budget for the 2014 fiscal year. The Meteorological Department will be able to help with climatic forecasts, while the Commerce Ministry can help with marketing.
Meteorological Department deputy director-general Somchai Baimuang said weather forecasting could be made for up to four months in advance, and that could help plan the farming season.
"We are ready to provide support. The Agriculture Ministry, meanwhile, has sought the budget to procure necessary devices," he said.