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Thailand's farm-to-table resilience featured in food export jump

[BANGKOK] Thailand is returning to its economic roots as a food producer, with overseas demand for rice, seafood, fruit and other edibles bolstering exports even as the Covid-19 pandemic dents production and shipments of manufactured goods.

The proportion of food- and agricultural-related exports to total shipments jumped to 19.7 per cent in April, their highest level in eight years, Pimchanok Vonkorpon, director-general of the Commerce Ministry's trade policy and strategy office, said in an interview Monday, even as total exports fell 3.3 per cent that month.

Fresh, frozen and processed foods, plus crops and other agricultural products, generally have accounted for 15 per cent-16 per cent of overseas sales in recent years, she said.

"This may be a new normal for Thai exports," Ms Pimchanok said, adding that food and agricultural exports could surpass 20 per cent of the total this year, with that level "likely to continue for quite some time."

"Even though this proportion can't offset falling industrial shipments, it helps millions of people because of the long supply chain in the farm and food sectors," she said.

Thailand has long been a major exporter of an array of commodities such as rice, tapioca, sugar and pineapples. Some companies have also become world leaders in ready-to-cook meals, food processing and quality control.

Those value-added technologies offer hope to millions of Thai farmers and food producers this year, when the economy faces its worst contraction in more than two decades. Thailand received no foreign tourists or related spending in April, according to official data, as borders were kept closed to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.

Among Thailand's biggest agro-industrial companies is Charoen Pokphand Foods Pcl, which generated 73 per cent of its 138 billion baht (S$6.14 billion) of revenue in the January-March quarter from abroad. Its motto, the "kitchen of the world," highlights divisions ranging from animal breeding to food processing, and frozen-meat shipments to prepared meals.

Thai Union Group Pcl, which owns seafood brands including Chicken of the Sea and John West, is another leading food exporter.

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