The Agriculture Ministry plans to increase organic farm acreage by at least 40% to 200,000 rai over the next two years to tap into higher demand in world markets. Organic plantations currently cover 140,963 rai, of which 80% are for rice, vegetables, fruit, and herbs, according to Deputy Agriculture Minister Rungruang Isarangkura.
The small area puts Thailand in 71st place out of 85 countries that grow organic produce, which earned only about one billion baht in export revenue, he said. The figure represents less than 0.1% of the total value of organic products around the world, estimated at 1.3 trillion baht in 2006.
According to Mr Rungruang, organic rice has the highest export potential and Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, is already the world leader in the niche segment.
He said that chemical-free crops have become increasingly popular in the past decade among consumers who are concerned about healthy eating and the effects of chemicals on foods and the environment. Studies have shown that these consumers are willing to pay 30-40% more for organic foods than for ordinary produce.
World market demand of organic produce has been rising by 20% a year, especially in rich countries in Europe, North America and Japan. The major organic product exporters are Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, India and China.
To capture the growing market, the ministry has set aside a budget of 1.7 billion baht to improve organic plantations. The funds will be spent to improve land, and on research and development, in addition to marketing to promote Thai products.
The ministry has a budget of 354 million baht for a Mentor Programme, in which selected experts will be hired to advise farmers over organic farming.
Based on the ministry’s survey, organic farming in Thailand involves two groups. The first is farmers who want to use sufficiency economy principles after having suffered losses growing crops with heavy use of chemicals.
”They have applied local wisdom to reduce their expense and finally found that organic products could be a solution,” Mr Rungruang said.
There are now 40 centres for mentors that have proved successful in distributing information and advising farmers on the sufficiency economy, he said. The ministry aims to have 130 centres by year-end, which each one supporting about 200 farmers.
”We expect around two million rai of chemical-use fields to turn to organic farming,” Mr Rungruang said.
The second group involves big producers that have contracted farms to produce a variety of organic products, such as rice, vegetable, fruit and shrimp.
According to Mr Rungruang, the ministry plans to improve standards to certify local organic produce to meet global levels. The improvement is expected to be finalised by the end of next year.
The Thai Chamber of Commerce this year plans to introduce a new quality standard, Thai Good Agricultural Practices, or ThaiGAP.
The goal of ThaiGAP is to ensure that the manufacturing standards of private companies, starting with vegetables and fruit, are up to the standards required by world markets.