Thailand in urgent need of agricultural reforms: Sudarat
Former Thai Rak Thai Party executive Sudarat Keyuraphan presents her vision on how the country should prepare itself for integration into the Asean Economic Community - in the second of a two-part interview given to The Nation.Your work has left you with a lot of experience. What would you like to pass on to younger generation/.
I do not want the country to miss opportunities or forgo its strength. We were born into an agricultural society with the majority - 40 million people - in the agricultural sector, which is a large base. If the base enjoys a healthy economy, it is like a pyramid that drives the whole economy. The country has a strategic location as the world's food source, we can become a food superpower.
The world trend is - whoever has food and energy becomes an economic power. We have everything, good soil and farmers, but we do not have a system to tap this force of farmers. Do not forget that Thai farmers are not highly educated. The state has to open opportunities first by giving them education and research. Her Majesty the Queen initiated the Rice Department and the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture, which is a significant move. Rice is a very important issue. Our rice yield per rai is less than that of Vietnam and our neighbouring countries. Cambodia is overtaking us also in this respect. We must conduct research and develop new rice breeds and new planting methods in order to increase productivity and reduce costs.
We can also increase selling prices by having value added and implementing agricultural zoning to prevent oversupply. For instance, we had the experience of an oversupply of longan. We can use areas that grow longan for other fruits that are more lucrative. But during the grace period in which longan farmers are felling their plantations to grow other economic plants, the government should provide them with income so that that they survive. Supporting the farmers this way is more sustainable than helping them through pledging schemes, which must be done every year, because they can depend on themselves in the long term. This is how agriculture zoning helps strengthen the economy.
How should the country prepare itself for integration with the AEC?
Today we are actually [running] a bit late for the AEC in terms of preparation. But we must implement agricultural reform in the food sector, energy plants and livestock plus marine. I believe we also face the problem of rice oversupply. We must [determine] the demand for rice and identify the most suitable farming locations. Farmers with flooded land must stop rice farming. But farmers cannot change their jobs by themselves because they have little education. The state must provide help by teaching them. Thai farmers are adaptable, but they have not been given the opportunities.
What the country must implement is a Green Revolution. The state must set clear objectives and have strong determination on how to make our farmers rich, not through conventional agriculture but agro-industry. I have encouraged many educational institutions, including the Rajabhat Universities, over the past five years to provide education on modern agriculture because we have an oversupply of students with management and education degrees. I would like to see the Rajabhat Universities, which have campuses in every province across the country, be the major institutes in conducting studies on agro-industry, agro-industry technology management, marketing and packaging. I want farmers to become rich by not having to leave their farms to become employees in the city. China is now searching for land in Thailand to grow rice. We once looked at other countries this way, now we have to seriously bring about the Green Revolution.
What industries are considered our strengths?
I believe strong industries [include] information technology and the auto industry. But agriculture is what we must pay attention to because it is our base and no one can do it like we can. But we have to get into modern agriculture. Another industry that no one can beat us in is tourism, because Thais are hospitable and service-minded.
How can the country deal with energy shortages?
Few people know about the country's energy structure and that we have to become more dependent on gas to produce electricity, while natural gas in the Gulf of Thailand will be depleted in 8-12 years. Today is too late to even think of finding alternative energy. We have an energy plan with neighbouring countries. But how are we going about it? We must have a clear energy strategy otherwise it is likely we will be stuck.
What else must the government do to be ready for the AEC?
We cannot stop investing in our basic infrastructure, logistics and transportation networks such as high-speed trains, and other modes that are less energy-consuming than cars. Internet and Wi-Fi facilities have become basic infrastructure and in those we must be on par with other countries.