For sustainable farming, get populist politics out of the way

opinion June 26, 2014 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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The most effective way for the government to help Thai farmers and the rice industry is simple and urgent: Just stay put.

That was the consensus at a “town-hall meeting” at this central “rice bowl” where representatives from all stakeholders in the crucial rice industry took turns to offer their ideas on how Thai farmers could improve their livelihoods in a sustainable way.
The general agreement was clear: Get politicians out of the picture. Only an independent Rice Board, representing all the major stakeholders and without political interference, should be empowered to draw up the country’s rice master plan as well as an action plan to meet the country’s real needs.
Politics has dominated the country’s rice industry all the way from the fields to the export market. Misguided policies plagued with corruption have done much damage to the industry and benefited only politicians, while plunging farmers into heavier debt.
A farmer from Chainat, whose son committed suicide recently after the Yingluck caretaker government failed to pay for his pledged rice, said he had started farming at the age of 17. Today he is 75 and still toiling every day, and still heavily in debt without any light at the end of the tunnel.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) says it will drop both Pheu Thai Party’s rice-pledging policy and the Democrat Party’s rice price-guarantee scheme. Instead, it will pursue a policy that will help reduce production costs for farmers while at the same time promoting better categories of premium rice strains to earn better prices for farmers.
In other words, painful lessons have been learned from past “populist” policies that have not helped promote the livelihood of farmers in any significant way.
“Politicians come and go and they only look at short-term scenarios, while rice farming and the rice trade require sustainable, visionary and long-term strategies,” said a veteran technocrat who has spent several decades studying the issue.
The previous government’s rice-pledging scheme squandered about Bt500 billion in national budget to pay farmers Bt15,000 per kwian, much higher than the market price. Despite criticism and warnings of serious pitfalls, the Yingluck government went ahead with the policy, which is now the target of an investigation into high-level corruption.
Today, the market price of paddy is down to around Bt6,000-8,000 per kwian – and even if Thailand regains its ranking as world No 1 for rice exports (competing against Vietnam and India), the real revenue has dropped significantly.
“Thailand has exported 4.3 million tonnes of rice in the past five months, the highest in the world. But that doesn’t mean we have gained. In fact, while the quantity rose 60 per cent, revenue only went up 16 per cent. That means Thailand has regained its No 1 position among rice exporting countries but has lost revenue in the process,” a major rice exporter told me.
Farmers at the town-hall meeting agreed that politicians should not dictate how and where rice should be planted. Things get worse when they start to interfere with the market mechanism by fixing prices that go against the world trend.
Farmers may get short-term satisfaction with a “populist” rice price boost. But the recent disastrous case of the caretaker government being unable to pay up and the significant losses incurred has been a huge wake-up call. No populist policy is sustainable.
Farmers are demanding a more sustainable system in which they can sit down to discuss with bankers, rice-millers, exporters, researchers and marketers to map out their farming strategies, instead of just relying on handouts and short-term political largesse from the government.
Technology, rice strain research, modern farming methods and substitute agricultural practices must be part of the new pattern of rice farming to be introduced by an independent and professional Rice Board.
“If all the stakeholders were free to sit down and draw up a national master plan for rice without interference from politicians, we could wrap up the ‘agenda for change’ within 60 days,” noted one experienced technocrat, who has spent most of his professional life in this field.
If the junta is serious about overhauling the rice industry and doing away with undue outside influence and political manipulation, the Rice Board concept is where the new action plan for sustainability in farming should be launched.