• Simon-Thorsten Wiebusch, Bayer's country group head.
  • Former rice official Montree Promaluksana, centre, shows a drone that can scan 1,000 rai of rice fields in less than 15 minutes. Its sensors can detect crop maturity, diseases and soil conditions.

Digitalisation to secure rice farming

Economy October 11, 2017 01:00

By CIMI SUCHONTAN
SPECIAL TO THE NATION

WITH the rise in smartphone usage in Thailand, Bayer’s country group head Simon-Thorsten Wiebusch said the next step to improve local rice crops may come from “digitalization” .



“Digitalisation provides a host of methods to efficiently cultivate rice,” said Wiebusch, who with other sponsors such as German state funded GIZ, show how high-tech drones can monitor, measure and protect hectares of paddy fields.

The collected aerial data can do within minutes what takes days on foot.

Thai rice, which is a key commodity export worth Bt25 billion and a food industry worth more than Bt156 billion, has been “struggling” in recent years, due to weak prices and growing competition.

“Digital apps makes farming easier, allowing young Thais to stay on the farms without moving to cities,” he said.

Wiebusch recognises most Thai farmers are deeply attached to family-owned plots but need assistance or make them more profitable.

The Western assumption was urban migration is inevitable but that iew is now seen as simplistic and flawed, he observed. On travels to Vietnam, Wiebusch saw “they “bury their dead at the edge of rice fields”.

“It would be unthinkable for them to sell sacred ancestral grounds.”

At the same time, Thai and Vietnamese farmers face competition from conglomerates with deep pockets and infrastructure.

This is where Wiebusch said Bayer could provide digital know-how and equipment to level the playing field,

Digitalisation and mechanization “can overcome the problem of Thailand’s ageing society as fewer children are born, to work the farms,” he offered.

The average size of Thai families has shrunk to 4, even in rural areas. This makes it hard to sustain output, he reasoned.

Bayer recently showcased a joint German-Thai private-public sector rice project In Ubon Ratchathani where 4.2 million rai of “khao hom mali” (jasmine rice) are cultivated.

Farmers at Baan Bua Thein village said they have cut planting costs by 20 per cent while raising yields by 20 per cent as well.

This means a hefty rise in earnings,” said Apichart Pongsrihadulchai, a key architects of BRIA (Better Rice Initiative for Asia).

BRIA encourages the use of new technology, including fertiliser, pesticide and drones.

Rapidly collected drone data tells farmers when crops are ripe for harvest, which must be done quickly to prevent the crop from spoiling, he said.

Small farmers will be around for quite some time here, Wiebusch deduced. The glamour of urban migration has faded fast in the digital age.

Lifetime employment and huge pensions are a thing of the past. More Thais now realise it is safer to stay on the farm that was for centuries a natural safety net.

“If they lose their jobs in cities, they will starve the minute they run out of cash.

But on the farms, they can survive off the land without the need for money,” Apichart added.

Thailand, with more than 70 per cent of the population in agriculture, has never fully bought into city migration as a panacea for its ills.

The corporate world is less sound than once believed after the 1997 financial crash wrecked the Kingdom and nearby countries.

Foreign punters who expected Thailand to implode were surprised when thousands of laid-off workers retreated to the farms, preventing civil unrest.

It allowed Thailand to repay IMF for emergency funds ahead of schedule, never to blindly trust Western banking again.

As such the 2007-2008 Wall Street Crash had little impact here as Thailand was not exposed to the sub-prime disaster.

The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a strong defender of rice farmers. He saw agriculture as the backbone of Thai society and constructed the “sufficiency economy” principles to ensure they could withstand the shocks of volatile market forces.

Many global food companies remain sanguine about gaining control of the market by squeezing out small farmers, unconcerned about the suffering they bring.

In recent decades, Thais have to fend off attacks by foreign governments who have accused Thailand of “stealing market share” just so they can sell their rice, while depriving Thai farmers of the receipts.

The Philippines based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) had for decades experimented with “super-rice” strains to feed the world. Had they succeeded, Thai farmers would have been impacted by a rice glut and plunging prices.

More recently, the attempt to introduce genetically modified (GMO) rice was exposed by Indian farmers as a ploy to control cultivation by forcing farmers to buy seeds from GMO companies like Monsanto.

Wiebusch added that it may be time for discussion to “regulate” rice farming. But in view of the fallout from the rice price pledging catastrophe, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has warned government or stop making such guarantees or getting the state overly involved in rural activities, which has often ended in tears.