The Importance of Rice to Thailand and its Elephants

Rice workers in Thailand

Rice is high in energy and protein, and it’s also cheap and fast to grow, reaching maturity at just four-five months. The rice plant is also fairly resistant to droughts and flooding. All this explains why over half of Thailand’s cultivated land is made up of rice fields, referred to as “naa”, and why over 80% of the Thai population eat rice every day. Our work at STEF is based in rural Thailand, where the locals refer to meals as “gin khao” or “eat rice”, because rice forms the basis of every meal. With an economy mainly built on exports, Thailand is also the world’s second-largest exporter of rice. Because of the importance of rice to their survival, Thai people view rice as the most sacred plant, just as they consider the elephant to be the most sacred animal. See our journal article on Elephants in Thai culture.

Evidence of rice cultivation in Thailand dates back over 5000 years. Many of the same ancient methods have been passed down the generations and are still used today. Although larger farms use harvesters, families and small farming communities continue to harvest rice by hand using a scythe, a hooked agricultural tool. The rice is then bundled and sun-dried on the roads before the grain is threshed and sometimes milled. Thai people practice religious ceremonies to pray for rain and fertile land in the year ahead, and each year, in May, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony takes place both at the Grand Palace and Sanam Luang, Bangkok.

Controlling the water supply to the rice is vital in the fluctuating Asian climate. Farmers dig networks of channels to funnel water into their fields during times of drought. At STEF’s veterinary centre at Ban Ton Sae, we have installed an extensive irrigation system, and also a drainage system to minimise the risk of flooding. You can read about our progress on our news page.

In recent years, the Thai rice yield has suffered due to flooding and droughts resulting from climate change and excessive use of pesticides. To help with this, the Thai government has created a Rice Research Institute, which is identifying the varieties that are most resistant to pests, disease, weather and climate change. They are also developing better water and soil management technologies, which help economise farming and land use; and they are working on reducing environmental impact by developing less energy-intensive drying and milling processes. The Thai government is encouraging the use of locally-sourced and natural pest deterrents and fertilisers, which are cheaper and more eco-friendly than chemical alternatives. Despite the scale of the industry, many rice farmers are now saving money and the environment by turning to eco-friendly, sustainable methods which increase the health and productivity of their crop. This is where elephants come in. Our next journal post (on 11th April) will explain how elephants could help to save the agricultural crisis, and how this could be key to saving them.
Find out more about sustainable farming research here: