The Future of Farms

How Thai scientists, policymakers, business leaders, and farmers are feeding the world.

Rice farm nestled between mountain peaks
© Sarun Laowong

Ming Saree-on has never heard about genomics or quantitative trait loci. What he is all too familiar with, though, is blast, a fungal disease that wilts his rice and income along with it. So when agricultural researchers showed up in his village asking if he wanted to test a new variety of rice with blast resistance, he felt he had nothing to lose.

He and subsistence farmers like him have long been the backbone of Thai society. But they are now struggling against a myriad of forces—such as the rise of commercial agriculture, and the migration of young people away from farming—which are threatening their way of life and a critical segment of Thailand’s economy.

Thailand may be a medium-sized, middle-income developing country, but it’s...

Rice farm nestled between mountain peaks
© Sarun Laowong

Ming Saree-on has never heard about genomics or quantitative trait loci. What he is all too familiar with, though, is blast, a fungal disease that wilts his rice and income along with it. So when agricultural researchers showed up in his village asking if he wanted to test a new variety of rice with blast resistance, he felt he had nothing to lose.

He and subsistence farmers like him have long been the backbone of Thai society. But they are now struggling against a myriad of forces—such as the rise of commercial agriculture, and the migration of young people away from farming—which are threatening their way of life and a critical segment of Thailand’s economy.

Thailand may be a medium-sized, middle-income developing country, but it’s among the agricultural heavyweights. Led by agricultural and food products—such as rice, natural rubber, tapioca, shrimp, and chicken—farmers like Ming help Thailand remain among the world’s top 15 agricultural and food-exporting countries, contributing $20 billion per year in export earnings.

For decades, Thai farmers’ traditional skills and their judicious application of science and technology, pragmatic public policies, and a forward-looking private sector have been the agricultural sector’s recipe for success. Unfortunately, this formula is rapidly becoming unbalanced. Biotechnology solutions like blast-resistant rice are increasingly seen as the pivotal variable to ensure that Ming and other Thai farmers continue to thrive.

A longtime tool

Science has played a valuable role in Thai agriculture for nearly a century. In 1914, one of the first students dispatched by King Rama V to study agriculture abroad, Phraya Phojakara, returned from Cornell University with a head full of new ideas to share with farmers. The rediscovery of the genetic theories of Gregor Mendel were a major contribution to the world’s agricultural science at the time, and Phraya Phojakara applied them when he assumed the role of chief breeder at the Rangsit Rice Experiment Station.

In 1917, the country’s top rice-producing regions submitted samples with desirable traits for use as potential parent varieties for subsequent breeding. The first target was regular table rice. After years of perseverance experimenting with open-pollinated breeding (traditional breeding that relies on natural mechanisms, like insects, birds, and wind in an isolated patch to produce seeds that can be saved for replanting), Phraya Phojakara’s efforts were recognized on the international stage. Thailand took first prize and swept 10 other prizes for grain quality at the World Grain Exhibition Conference in Regina, Canada, in August 1933.

To this day, Thai rice—particularly jasmine—is world renowned. What’s less known is Thailand’s contribution to maize—specifically, the discovery of a gene that provides resistance to downy mildew that led to the development of the Suwan-1 maize variety.

“Developed by Thai researchers for Thai farmers, Suwan-1 went on to become a major Thai contribution to the world,” Pongthep Akratanakul, chief of the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology, part of Kasetsart University, says. “Virtually all maize varieties grown in the world’s tropical areas today carry the downy mildew-resistant gene that traces back to Suwan-1.”

Now, under the direction of the 2004–2011 National Biotechnology Policy Framework, science is playing an even stronger role in Thailand’s agriculture and food industries. The Framework emphasizes applying core technologies such as genomics, bioinformatics, and breeding using DNA markers to select desirable traits to improve productivity.

© Nils Kahle

After nearly a decade of debate, the government is poised to release clearer guidelines for researchers to more aggressively pursue field trials of genetically modified crops. Given the ongoing uncertainty as to the direction GMO products may take in the global marketplace, and the integral role the agricultural economy plays in Thai society, policy makers have proceeded cautiously. For the time being, main food products, especially rice, will remain off limits to GM technologies, but a host of other products such as genetically modified maize and soybean, which are used mainly as animal feed, can be grown locally as well as imported. The National Biosafety Bill now winding its way through the legislative process will generate strict controls on laboratory research and open-field trials of GMOs.

“GM-crop development is important if Thailand’s competitiveness as one of the world’s major agricultural and food exporters is to be maintained,” says Morakot Tanticharoen, senior advisor of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC).

Food 3.0

In recent years, the rise of modern commercial agriculture has threatened to squeeze out subsistence farming. New entrants to the agricultural labor force are dwindling as children from farming families spend more years in school, then secure employment in industrial and services sectors, never to return to their farming roots. Thailand’s agricultural workforce has shrunk from 60 percent of the country’s total labor force in 1982 to only 40 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the average age of a Thai farmer has increased to 51 years.

In response, government policy makers, members of the private sector, and the scientific community have reached a consensus that an export-oriented agricultural production system and subsistence farming shall not be mutually exclusive. The full force of Thailand’s biotechnological capabilities should be brought to bear on protecting local farmers, says Theerayut Toojinda, a leading plant breeder from BIOTEC.

Several years ago, Theerayut began working with farmers in the rain-fed lowlands of the North and Northeast. Their fields had become less fertile and their world-famous jasmine rice, Khao Dok Mali (KDML 105) and glutinous jasmine rice (Kor Khor 6), were frequently impacted by diseases and pests. Main scourges included blast, bacterial blight, and abiotic stresses such as flooding, drought, and salinity.

Theerayut’s team applied a decade’s worth of research to the problem, during which they identified genomic regions associated with important positive traits targeted for improvement, such as cooking quality, aroma, and tolerance to pests and diseases, as well as flooding, drought, and salty soil. They then proceeded to locate the positions of these genes based on their respective functions in the rice genome with the help of DNA markers.

“We found that most of the genes that determine cooking quality, aroma, and the targeted traits can be manipulated without causing negative impacts on grain yield and its components,” Theerayut says.

Apichart Vanavichit, director of the Rice Gene Discovery Unit, is confident that the “Super Jasmine” variety that Theerayut and the Rice Gene Discovery Unit are developing jointly will be resistant to flood, diseases, insects, salinity, and drought, while at the same time retaining cooking quality/aroma, and be ready by 2015, if not earlier.

Ming Saree-on is plenty happy with the results so far on his tiny (0.2-hectare) plot. In July 2008, his village in Nan Province’s Chiang Klang district was abuzz with rumors about an “upgraded” blast-resistant Kor Khor 6 variety that Ming had planted. Three months later, when an outbreak of blast occurred, there was no hiding the outcome. Much of the conventional variety rice surrounding Ming’s plot either wilted or fell flat to the ground.

“I never expected that the experiment would pay off big time, the first time I did it,” he says. “One neighbor described my crop as the only sober person left standing in a room full of drunkards.”

Researchers are also exploring varieties that might offer higher nutritional value and more bioactive ingredients. For example, nutrition experts at Mahidol University, in cooperation with the Rice Science Center, have identified varieties rich in antioxidants and iron. These are being targeted for further development as “functional food” to promote good nutrition, as well as to address specific health requirements, such as anemia.

“These programs are exactly what we need. In the past, all we did was wait for the government to tell us what rice variety is good for us and what we should be planting in our fields,” says farmer Pitak Yapuang, who like Ming is known as a community researcher. “Now we get to try new varieties and decide for ourselves.”

More cash per crop

While propping up small farmers is important, Paiboon Ponsuwanna, Vice Chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries and Executive Director of Transmut Food, a major seafood exporter, stresses that to stay competitive, Thailand must transform a portion of its agriculture into industrial-scale farming.

Contract farming, or agricultural production based on an agreement between farmers and buyers that sets conditions, usually at predetermined prices, is the way to go, not just for staple cereal crops, but also for cassava, a promising new source of biofuels, according to Klanarong Sriroth, head of the Kasetsart Agricultural and Agro-Industrial Product Improvement Institute.

“Once the cassava ethanol industry takes off, the producers need to be able to control the whole production process, including deciding from whom to buy and what production method is required in order to ensure quality consistency and optimal production efficiency,” he stresses.

At the current output of 30 million metric tons per year, Thailand’s cassava-related products, including flour and tapioca, account for 75 percent of the world market. Applied biotechnology has resulted in new varieties with enhanced starch yield, starch quality, earlier harvests, and greater tolerance to pest and diseases.

Thai researchers are looking at the enzymes involved in starch biosynthesis in different cassava cultivars with varying storage starch levels as a way to increase starch content.

In addition, Thai scientists have adapted and refined an existing fermentation process used to turn cassava into ethanol, which significantly decreases the costs and increases the efficiency. “While the fermentation efficiency and conversion ratio is comparable to conventional methods, the production time of the new process is about 25 percent faster, which translates into considerable savings in energy consumption and production costs,” Klanarong says.

Thailand is currently ranked number 2 in the world in sugar exports; Thai scientists are also exploring novel methods to increase profits from this crop. Prasert Chatwachirawong, head of Kasetsart University’s Sugarcane Research Station, is working on new varieties with harvest intervals of 8 months, 2 months shorter than average. Prasert is also trying to nearly double the amount of bagasse, a byproduct of sugar production that can be used in feed for power plants and ethanol production, as well as pulp and paper products and building materials.

“We are probably most interested in improving the sucrose content as well as sugarcane yield,” says Prasert. The current program is aimed at increasing refined sugar output from 106 kg to 130 kg per ton of raw sugarcane.

Another goal of the sugarcane research station’s BIOTEC-funded work is to uncover the molecular details of sugarcane germplasm (protoplasm of the germ cells that contains genetic material), based on microsatellite markers, morphology, agronomic traits, reaction to certain diseases, and pedigrees. The process is crucial given the highly polyploid nature of the sugarcane genome. The greater the number of informative markers, the greater the impact they can have on breeding.

His team has also been applying marker-assisted selection to increase efficiency of conventional breeding to develop new varieties with desirable qualities and sweetness as well as resistance to diseases and insect pests.

Private Sector Power

Pipat Weerathaworn, Director of the Sugarcane Research Center at Mitr Phol, Thailand’s leading sugar producer and exporter, has been pleased with the longstanding commitment the government has made to develop sugarcane varieties. But he’s also aware of the constraints under which public sector researchers work.

“We continue to cooperate with government scientists on certain programs of mutual interest,” Pipat says. “However, we realize that public sector research institutes have to serve many stakeholders, and with intense competition in the international market, we know we need our own R&D capability.”

Mitr Phol grossed $1.5 billion in 2009. Its research center operates with a staff of 55 working on high-yielding, high-sugar-content, disease-resistant sugar cane varieties to suit its own farms as well as those of its contract farmers.

“In collaboration with BIOTEC, we are now in the process of planning to use molecular biology, particularly marker-assisted selection, to develop new varieties with resistance to smut, a fungal disease,” says Pipat.

Similar research and development is being conducted by Betagro Group, one of Thailand’s largest integrated agro-industrial companies, with $1.35 billion in annual revenue.

Biotechnology research has been recognized as one of the most important factors contributing to the company’s competitiveness, says Rutjawate Taharnklaew, General Manager of Betagro Science Center.

“Biotechnology offers many ways to keep production cost down and to improve quality while at the same time to meet the highest standards in the global marketplace,” says Rutjawate.

He cites Betagro’s recently completed microarray technology for food microbial analysis designed to detect and identify specific serotypes of salmonella. The procedure is part of the company’s preparation to ensure compliance with more stringent EU regulations for salmonella control that will come into force in 2012.

“In partnership with our micorarray manufacturer, we have gained valuable knowledge for customizing a platform that is suitable for our chicken export operations,” says Rutjawate. The company now plans to develop microarray platforms for other food-borne pathogens as well.

The country cannot increase its production by bringing additional farmland online, since the government has capped agriculture land use at 20.8 million hectares to maintain sufficient forest cover and ensure watershed conservation. Regardless of whether research and development comes from the public or private sector, Thailand is now fully reliant on R&D to sustain its position among the world’s top agriculture exporters.

To stay ahead of the competition, says Sakarindr Bhumiratana, President of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), a vigorous and systematic application of science and technology, particularly biotechnology, in agriculture is imperative.

“It’s not just a question of the what, when, and where biotechnology should be utilized for the greatest good, but also how wisely it is applied,” Sakarindr says.

Farmer Ming and his neighbors are quite happy with the direction the science is headed now, adding, “We certainly know how nature works, and that some day new problems we’ve never experienced before will pop up. It’s good to know we can count on scientists to help us overcome them.”

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