Key to agricultural progress is research

Wisarn Pupphavesa

          Agriculture is a necessary and integral part of the government’s “Thailand 4.0” initiative. It is far more important as both a means and ends to Thailand’s economic and social development than is otherwise generally recognised.
          Agricultural development is a solution to national and global sustainable development. However, agricultural development is not possible without sufficient and effective research. Research can help reduce the cost of farming, increase productivity, improve quality, add new varieties, differentiate products, make new and more valuable uses of agricultural products and make renewable resources better substitutes for certain depleting resources.
          Highly developed countries such as Singapore, Australia, France, the United States, Germany, Japan and Korea have invested as much as 2-4% of GDP in research. Among Asean members other than Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia invest about 0.89% and 1.08% of GDP in research respectively.
          Meanwhile, Thailand invests less than 0.5% of GDP and only about one fifth of that is allocated for agriculture proper.
          Human resource wise, Thailand has only 0.8 research personnel per 1,000 people compared with 1.97 per 1,000 in Malaysia. Given such a small number of research personnel, less than 8% of them are specifically in agriculture research. There is the need for more investment in agricultural research and development as well as in development of agricultural research personnel in order for Thailand to realise its 4.0 plan.
          The Agricultural Development Research Agency (Arda) is a public organisation established in 1999 to promote, finance and administer agricultural development research projects, development of agricultural researchers and boost agricultural development information systems and networks.
          Over the past two decades, Arda – the only research funding and administering institute in Thailand that is dedicated to agriculture – has tried hard to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its mission.
          Given the fixed amount of funding it receives, Arda initially focused on funding research projects that were promising to result in a patent or a petty patent that could be commercialised and hence could collect royalty fees for future research funding.
          However, it took a long time to reap financial returns from commercialised patents and the revenue was rather small relative to research funding needed to ensure Arda’s financial sustainability.
          It is also questionable whether dependence on patent fees is a good business model for Arda and Thailand, given that research results in public goods that can provide much greater and broader benefits to Thai people instead of being an exclusive right of just one or few businesses who pay for it.
          There is also a great need for a variety of research addressing cost reduction, productivity improvement, quality improvement, off-season farming, organic farming, precision farming, post harvest technology, and best practices for various stages of farming that directly solve existing farming problems.
          The result of these research projects should be disseminated broadly, quickly and effectively to farmers.
          The benefits of this research would be enormous in terms of increasing Thailand’s overall economic competitiveness, improving the quality of life of Thai farmers and consumers, reducing poverty and income inequality and enhancing Thailand’s development sustainability.
          Meanwhile, agricultural policy research is no less important.
          Current agricultural policy interventions are mostly commodity-oriented, aimed at apparent problems and symptoms, rather than the root causes of the problems, based on relevant people’s understanding and perspectives, rather than in depth research into the root causes of the problems.
          The interventions provide partial, fragmented and temporary relief rather than comprehensive, integrated and sustainable solutions.
          Additionally, such interventions focus on anti-market quantity and price control, instead of market friendly policy instruments that would solve the ultimate objective of improvement of farmers’ competitiveness, income and well-being.
          The right policy accompanied with the right policy instruments and the right adjustment assistance requires comprehensive, integrated and in-depth research.
          The formation of the National Research Management System (NRMS) in 2015 has helped improve coordination and streamlined research funding and management among the principal research funding institutes of Thailand. It has also enabled Arda to pay greater attention to agricultural policy research and a variety of other research through additional financial resources from annual research budgeting.
          The government should allocate a much larger annual research budget to the NRMS. Then, a much greater portion of the budget should be dedicated to agricultural research projects.
          Additionally, there should be well coordinated and integrated research programmes among relevant research funding institutes.
          A shortage of researchers is also an important constraint in Thailand.
          The Arda has tried to build up agricultural research by funding higher education in agriculture from its own financial resources.
          However, higher education is very costly. Competent researchers need to be PhD graduates who acquired adequately broad and in-depth knowledge in a specialised field.
          After their graduation, it would take at least a few more years to earn research experience to deliver high-quality research output.
          To burden Arda with building up human resources in agricultural research despite its limited financial resources is not sustainable.
          The government, through the Civil Service Commission, should take responsibility in funding postgraduate studies and PhD scholarships in agriculture while coordinating and consulting with Arda and take into account the required fields of specialisation and the required number of graduates.
          There should be no obligation for scholarship recipients to work in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives but should voluntarily do so.
          This is because a good researcher tends to perform best in a research oriented environment, not in a bureaucratic one.
          Besides, other duties and responsibilities bureaucratic work requires would sooner or later divert attention and concentration away from research.
          Utilisation of research results is another shortcoming in not only agricultural development issues, but also in many other fields of research.
          Commercialising research work takes too long to go through patent registration and other kind of registration, certification, permission, and scaling up to the manufacturing stage.
          To streamline these processes, there is a need for capacity building and closer collaboration among concerned authorities. To implement policy research recommendations, sincere consultation and public hearings with all stakeholders should be conducted to gain understanding and support.
          To make use of public-oriented research results, extension services must be carried out widely and equitably and credit in terms of key performance indicators needs to be given to researchers for their academic career path.

Wisarn Pupphavesa, PhD, is a senior adviser for International Economics and Development Policy, Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the ‘Bangkok Post’ on alternate Wednesdays.

First Publish: Bangkok Post on Wednesday, January 09, 2019