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Thailand: Stay off my rice paddy

As wealthy foreigners scoop up Asian farms, Thailand says no way.

“When you look at it as a sportsmen, it would be like you play golf, you’re a single handicap player, but you declare a handicap of 20,” said Nandor von der Luehe, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand.

Politicians assume that voters will cry treason if they ever invite foreigners to compete with Thais — and outright revolt if they break down barriers to rice farming. But this most sacred of livelihoods happens to be one of Thailand’s least efficient. Though roughly 43 percent of the Thai labor force works in agriculture, the sector only contributes 12 percent to the national GDP.

Thailand, preparing to export 9 million tons of rice in 2010, is unmatched as a rice exporter. But lesser-developed countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines reap far more rice per acre than Thailand, according to research by Andrew Walker, professor at Australian National University. Productivity is less than half of Asia’s combined figure and ranks among the world’s lowest.

“If you could put in foreign capital and consolidate land and have a bigger economy of scale, you could make those returns much higher,” Supavud said. “But that triggers all sorts of anti-foreign sentiment.”

One of Thailand’s best-known axioms equates prosperity with having “rice in the fields and fish in the waters.” But more young, upcountry Thais are ditching family rice fields to try their luck in Bangkok. This internal migration trend is even reflected in Thai country music radio, replete with songs of struggle and success in the big city.

The “hollowing out” of able-bodied farmhands, Supavud says, is yet another drag on productivity. “The land is left to older generations,” he said, “who farm in an inefficient way.” A foreign-led revitalization of the farming industry, he said, might threaten Thai agricultural bosses but could improve the lives of everyday farmers.

As the world struggles with food scarcity, crowded and dry nations will likely covet Thailand’s lush farmland more and more. Some economists predict that future food shortages will render this territory too valuable to squander through inefficient farming practices.

But, for now, Thai society still can’t stomach foreign control of its heartland, said Duenden Nikomborirak, research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute. And the current government, held together by a loose coalition of interests, is too fragile to risk public reprisal.

“Any changes to the (Foreign Business Act) would need a very strong government willing to bear a political cost,” said Duenden. “And I don’t see, in the near future, any government that could bear that cost.”