‘Farming powerhouse’ Thailand is Asia’s top milk exporter

Breaking with the long-held belief that Asian’s don’t like dairy products, Thailand has become the largest milk exporter in Asia, edging out China in statistics released last week, while the Board of Investment announced it is implementing a regime of incentives to grow the biotech and agriculture sectors so that ‘farming powerhouse’ Thailand can help meet the growing global demand for food as populations rise.

Thailand exported $33.1 million worth of milk in 2015, the latest year for which complete and verified statistics were available, according to a report by Rabobank, a Dutch bank that is a leader in agriculture and food financing. China came in second in Asia, exporting $24.2 million worth of milk.

For all dairy products, Thailand is the leading producer and exporter among the 10 countries of ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In all of Asia, however, India was the largest producer of milk, but not the largest exporter.

Thailand is the only net food exporting country in Asia. Agriculture and food production are considered a national strength and the Kingdom is key to regional food security. But the country is known more for its role as one of the world’s leading rice exporters, and a leader in exports of seafood, fruits, sugar and other foods. Dairy exports have gone largely unnoticed.

Food production is one of 10 industries that will receive support under Thailand 4.0, the 20-year national strategy to make the Thai economy more advanced. The government is encouraging investment and research and development in biotechnology, agro-industries including food production and technology.

“In 2016 alone, the Board of Investment (BoI) approved more than 320 agricultural projects valued over $4.8 billion. Incentives are especially compelling for innovative projects in fruit and vegetable food packaging, biofuel manufacture, supplements and medical food, rubber science and extraction of bio-active ingredients,’’ the BoI said in a statement. “A network of 24 universities sees 7,000 students graduate each year with a biotechnology background.”

As with most Asian nations, milk and dairy products were barely consumed in Thailand until several decades ago when a Danish company founded a dairy farm and began selling milk and dairy products. Their acceptance and popularity was increased when the late monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, believing milk consumption would contribute to the better health of Thais, also founded a dairy farm and even kept a herd of cows at his research station at Chitrlada Palace in Bangkok. Motorists driving by the palace can often see the cows from the road.

The changing diet among Thais and Asians created business opportunities over the years. Entrepreneurs have made fortunes in Thailand with franchises selling pizza and other foods that conventional wisdom said would not be popular because Thais do not like bread or cheese. Tastes, however, have obviously changed.