Record high rice exports as U.S. eyes Thai bio-economy

Thailand’s rice exports hit a record high in 2017 increasing by nearly 15 percent year on year as government agencies were putting the final touches on a master plan to maximize the strength of Thailand’s agricultural sector by building a bio-economy. Meanwhile, while representatives of the United States Grain Council visited the Kingdom with an eye towards forging partnerships in producing bio-fuels.

Thailand produces some of the highest quality rice in the world, and was the world’s top rice exporter for three decades. The Kingdom exported at least 11.25 million tons as of December 27, according to the Ministry of Commerce, the highest volume since Thailand began trading rice decades ago. Despite greater supply in the market, prices still rose, providing good news for farmers. The price per ton for the premier quality jasmine fragrant rice, or hom mali, has risen above $1,000. Overall revenues from rice exports reached $4.97 billion with a few days to go in the year.

Farmers have been called the backbone of Thailand, and rice is the backbone of the farming community. Despite its low-tech image, rice production and agriculture are also providing a strong foundation for the development of a bio-economy, one of the targeted sectors in Thailand 4.0, the 20-year national strategy to transform the economy and society to a higher-tech level using innovation and research and development.

To achieve that, the government is developing the country’s first ever bio-economy development plan that will go before the cabinet for approval in early 2018. The private sector is contributing to the drafting of the plan with several proposals.

The bio-economy includes five sectors: bioenergy, bio-chemicals, food, animal feed and biopharmaceuticals. Bioenergy, in the form of biofuels, is a promising sector that has caught the attention of agencies in the United States.

“Thailand is a good collaborator to discuss engine technology and biofuels policy with regional partners,” said Brian Healy, United States Grain Council (USGC) manager of ethanol export market development, while visiting Bangkok last week as part of a USGC delegation.

The United States Department of Agriculture has forecast that the Kingdom’s ethanol production will increase by 7 percent to 1.5 billion liters in 2018, up from 1.4 billion liters in 2017. Biodiesel production is forecast to rise by 4 percent to 1.48 billion liters from 1.42 billion liters. Higher domestic biofuel demand is driven by continued price subsidies on gasohol prices through the State Oil Fund.

“Thailand has successfully differentiated ethanol products to consumers at the pump by using price incentives across grades of fuel and incentivizing the use of flexible fuel vehicles,” Healy said. “Thailand also produces flex fuel vehicles for its own domestic market and for export to regional markets.