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Thai farmers turn to cattle to raise rice

After more than three decades of benefiting from Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution, Thailand is trying to turn back to old- fashioned cattle dung to raise its rice.

It is enough to make the ghost of E.F. Schumacher, the old British economist who championed what he called the "Buddhist economics" of sustainable development 40 years ago, smile from beyond the grave.

For decades, Thailand's export-led industrial revolution has rested on the firm foundations of a booming agricultural sector. Over the past half century, the nation has been one of the leading rice exporters in the world, thanks to the miracle high-yield hybrids that Borlaug and his fellow geneticists produced.

As a result, Thailand became the world's sixth largest producer of rice and has been the largest exporter of the crop for decades. As a result, successive Thai governments were able to take the prosperity and stability of their vast agricultural sector for granted while they concentrated on the industrial and hi-tech growth that has made the nation's "tiger" economy one of the wonders of Asia.

But shadows have been lengthening over Thailand's wonder rice harvests. The nation faces increasingly intense competition in its traditional export markets from China and Vietnam, both of which have far lower agricultural labor costs and, in China's case vast economies of scale.

Even more worrying, the kind of environmental problems that ecologists have warned about for decades have started to catch up with Thailand's intensive irrigation practices. Rising salt levels in irrigation have become a major problem that the government can no long ignore.

And overshadowing all else is the rising global cost of oil; for oil dependence has always been the Achilles heel of the Green Revolution.

Bumper rice crops from the wonder-hybrids require intensive input of nitrate fertilizers and oil is essential to make them. But global oil prices have quadrupled over the past five years, soaring from historic lows around $120 a barrel to more than $40 a barrel now. And the threat of massive unrest in Saudi Arabia, the world's key swing producer, coupled with continued upheaval in neighboring Iraq threatens to push prices higher yet.

In order to escape it soil dependence trap and also combat the desalination and other environmental problems caused by over-intensive irrigation, Thailand is responding by trying to turn the clock back. Thai agricultural experts are betting that cattle can help it grow rice better than fertilizer.

The nation's Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry has launched a 10-billion baht project to lend cattle to rice farmers as a cheaper and more ecologically healthy alternative to using chemical fertilizer.

Agriculture Minister Somsak Thepsuthin has hailed the new strategy as being far more economical and healthy for the environment.

"Cattle raising can help reduce rice production costs because cattle droppings can replace chemical fertilizer. They also help improve soil fertility," Somsak told a public hearing in Bangkok June 11.

Somsak has therefore given the go-ahead for a new five-year plan to boost its rice exports in the face of growing competition, the Bangkok Post reported June 11.

The Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry announced the new strategy to boost the nation's rice yield from the current 25.8 million tons a year to 33 million tons over the next five years, the paper said. If successful, the program will boost farmers' incomes from 139.586 billion baht in 2003 to 226.742 billion baht in 2008, it said.

The idea of going back to old traditional methods of "balanced" agriculture and turning away from monoculture is a return to pre-green revolution practices. As long as 300 years ago, British farmers successfully experimented with growing different crops every year, in different seasons, or in different combinations together so as to avoid exhausting the soil and returning crucial nutrients to it.

Some countries like Switzerland have also historically favored balancing the maintaining of relatively small numbers of livestock in balance with raising crops. But the great global emphasis on economics of scale to produce huge crops for massive profit in sales to urban and export markets have long since relegated such practices to the sidelines in major agricultural producing nations.

However, Thailand's response to its own financial and environmental dilemmas suggests that at long last the fashion may be beginning to change. Schumacher would certainly have approved.

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