Uncovering Southeast Asia's Rich Agriculture by Gwen Heather Curativo
Agriculture is an essential sector in Southeast Asia, accounting for a huge chunk of the region's GDP and employing a sizable portion of the workforce. Among the region's diverse markets are some of the world's largest agricultural exporters, such as Thailand and Vietnam, as well as cutting-edge research and development centers, like Singapore.
While rice remains the primary agricultural crop in the region, other crops such as corn, coffee, cocoa, as well as fruits and vegetables, are also fundamental. Moreover, some regions specialize in fresh and canned fish, as well as livestock. Besides this, palm oil is a major agricultural product in both Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Importance of Agriculture in Southeast Asia
The tropical rainforest and the monsoon patterns set the region apart, leading to the development of some quite unique agricultural traditions. While rice can be grown almost anywhere there is water, other aspects of Southeast Asian agriculture are more regionally specific.
Asia and the Pacific region remain the world's largest fish producers. In fact, two of the top ten producers of capture fish are from Southeast Asia: Indonesia (ranked 5th) and Thailand (ranked 9th). Both capture fisheries and aquaculture remain critical to the region's food security, revenue generation, and employment. On the other hand, the region's forests are gaining increased recognition, particularly in light of rising narratives about climate change mitigation, demand for bioenergy, water issues, natural disasters, the role of forests in poverty reduction, and the potential role of coastal forests in mitigating the effects of typhoon events.
Here we take a deeper look at the critical role each country plays in helping contribute to the larger ecosystem.
Crop Production in the Philippines
The Philippines' leading agricultural crops are rice, maize, sugarcane, banana, mango, cassava, coffee, sweet potato, and eggplant. Additionally, the Philippines is the leading producer of coconut, pineapple, and abaca (an inedible banana whose leaves are used for textiles) in the world. You can also spot flavorful fruits such as atis (custard apple), chico (naseberry), dalanghita (mandarin orange), duhat (java plum), and the 'smelly but healthy' durian.
Agriculture plays a significant role in the Philippine economy. It employs roughly 40% of all Filipino workers and contributes an average of 20% to the country's GDP. Crop cultivation is the primary agricultural enterprise in the country, followed by chicken broiler production (20.4 percent), agricultural services (19.8 percent), and hog farming (19.8 percent).
Thailand’s Seafood Industry
In the land of smiles, 40% of the population is engaged in agriculture-related occupations. Foods that are industrially processed, such as canned tuna, pineapples, and frozen shrimp are on the rise. Thailand, with over 3,200 kilometers of coastline, is one of the world's largest fish producers and the world's largest exporter of shrimp. The seafood industry is well-known for its profitability, with Thailand supplying cheap seafood to a bunch of US and European retailers.
In 1999, the country's total fisheries production was over 3.6 million tons. One factor contributing to the relatively high annual fish production is its geographical advantage. Marine fishing grounds within Thailand's Exclusive Economic Zones are located in a portion of the Gulf of Thailand and a portion of the Andaman Sea, constituting approximately 316,000 square kilometers. Moreover, more than one million hectares of coastal areas are suitable for coastal aquaculture.
Aquatic resource extraction and farming are critical components of rural people's livelihoods in the Southeast Asia region. Fisheries and aquaculture also have a profound cultural significance and are more than a source of income or food supply; traditional fishery products such as fish sauce and fish-based condiments have long been integral in people's daily diets and are difficult to replace.
Oil Palm Cultivation in Malaysia
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Introducing the largest producer of palm oil in the world, Malaysia, accounting for nearly half of global production. Previously, the country was also the world's largest producer of rubber but was overtaken by Thailand and Indonesia in the early 1990s. Malaysia, on the other hand, also continues to be the world's fourth-largest cocoa producer.
Malaysia has a long history of plantation agriculture and has traditionally been a resource-based economy, with expanding plantations such as oil palm displacing natural forests. The country's biodiversity is threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation and expanding plantations, while demand for palm oil is expected to continue growing, putting additional pressure on tropical forests.
Given Malaysia's high biophysical suitability for oil palm cultivation, it is important to understand oil palm expansion patterns in order to more accurately predict forest areas at risk of future expansion. Consequently, the Malaysian oil palm industry practices sustainable agriculture to ensure that the crop does not harm the environment or biodiversity through the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Integrated Pest Management or IPM also reduces pesticide use by relying more on biological control of weeds and pests.
The massive expansion of plantations is causing enormous environmental problems such as monocultures, biodiversity loss, and climate change, but also social problems such as a lack of worker rights and a variety of conflicts with indigenous people.
Palm oil can be produced more sustainably, and businesses, governments, and consumers all have a role to play. While you can use alternatives like peanut oil, sunflower, grape seed, and avocado oil they are equally controversial because to produce the same amount of alternative oils, between four and ten times more land would be required, simply relocating the problem to other parts of the world and continuing to endangering other habitats, species, and communities. Additionally, palm oil production supports the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers. Contrary to popular belief, boycotting palm oil is not the only answer. There's no easy solution, but rather a need to increase our demand for action in order to address the issues and move forward more quickly.
Rice Production in Indonesia
In the majority of Southeast Asian countries, a meal without rice is not considered a meal. Over 93 percent of Indonesian families consume rice daily, whereas an average Indonesian consumes about 114 kilograms of rice per year. Rice is essential not only to Indonesian cuisine and culture but also to the country's economy. Indonesia is the third-largest rice producer in the world, next to China and India.
Matter of fact, for anyone already in the country or considering a trip to Indonesia, Nasi Padang is likely one of the first names that come to mind when discussing the local food scene. Nasi Padang is an Indonesian dish that combines rice (nasi) and a variety of traditional cooked Pandang dishes, like meat and vegetables, from the West Sumatra region. This meal can also be served as hidangor — in which the server brings rice and a variety of side dishes — or as pesan, in which customers are served rice on a plate and then choose which side dishes to pile on top. This denotes rice as a significant part of the Indonesian diet. In Java and Bali, the goddess of rice, Dewi Sri, is highly revered, and as a result of this divine inspiration, almost everything is served with rice on the side – even carb-heavy dishes like noodles or potatoes!
Cashew Production in Vietnam
Hội An, Vietnam
In Vietnam, the majority of the population (more than 80%) are farmers. The Red River and Mekong River of the country are renowned for their fertile land. Indeed, Vietnam continues to be the world's leading producer and exporter of cashew nuts.
Since the early 1980s, Vietnam has been producing cashews throughout the country. Provinces such as Binh Phuoc and Dong Nai were designated as production zones due to their location in the humid tropics and abundance of fertile red soil. The Vietnamese government provided farmers with seeds and fertilizer and held lectures on cultivation techniques used in other countries.
Cashew nuts are classified in Vietnam according to their size, color, and degree of rupture. They are divided into distinct categories and denoted by symbols that accurately classify them. Additionally, each variety of cashew nut has a unique price tag based on its size (large or small), as well as its color (light, yellow, or brown). A cracked nut will also cost more than a small nut, while a large nut will cost more than a small nut.
In addition to cashews, Vietnam is also becoming increasingly popular for it’s coffee production. We highlighted some of our favorite coffee farmers in our last box: Coffee of Southeast Asia Snack Box and introduced the Coffee Culture in Southeast Asia.
In terms of agricultural production, rice, vegetables and beans, sugarcane, starchy roots, and tobacco are the top five crops in Laos. Rice production has increased 47.9 percent in the decade since 1990, and commercial crops such as mung beans, soybeans, peanuts, tobacco, cotton, sugarcane, coffee, and tea are also frequently grown.
Due to the subsistence nature of Lao agriculture, it has played a minor role in the country's foreign trade. Laos' agricultural sector is primarily focused on the export of timber, lumber, plywood, and coffee.
Despite this, many city dwellers come from rural backgrounds and often demonstrate an interest in gardening. Urban residents are likely to invest in gardens, small fish ponds, and livestock farming. Additionally, they may participate in Mekong River fishing, hunting, and foraging for wild foods.
Approximately two-fifths of Laos is forested, and the country's forest resources support a number of significant wood-processing industries. Fishing is also critical for lowland dwellers, and aquaculture has grown in popularity in the early twenty-first century. The most common pond-raised fish are tilapia and various species of carp. Livestock farming, particularly of pigs, cattle, water buffalo, and chickens, has also grown in importance.
In Laos, the Mekong River is also known as "Khong, Mother of Waters." The Mekong is essential to the country; even the broad blue stripe on their national flag represents it. The waters serve as Laos' primary transportation and communication artery, as well as its primary fishing area. The Mekong River system is home to a number of intricately connected ecosystems. Among them are evergreen, deciduous, and montane forests; shrubs and woodlands; mangroves; and a variety of riparian and freshwater ecosystems.
Unique Agricultural Methods in Southeast Asia
How do you identify that what you're getting is fresh? Fortunately, there are still countries in Southeast Asia that practice traditional farming methods, ensuring that you have access to safe, all-natural produce. Organic farming, plant-based eating, and agro-tourism are gaining more attention, and locals are delighted to demonstrate their produce and the methods their early ancestors used for centuries.
- Lowland Rice Farming System
- This farming system is predominately rice-based, with cropping intensity determined by rainfall distribution, growing season length, and irrigation availability. Rice and vegetables are the primary and secondary food crops, respectively. Rice is grown on the same plot during the rainy season, while vegetables are grown during the dry season. Regional food security is dependent upon this system's output. Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Indonesia have large areas of this system.
- Tree Crop Mixed Farming System
- This farming system combines crop and livestock production. Field crop production is highly reliant upon the availability of draught animals and manure. Draught animals are vital for land preparation, while animal manure fertilizes field crops. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines have large parts of this system. Rubber, oil palm, coconut, coffee, tea, and cocoa are major industrial crops, with some others such as pepper and other spices being associated.
- Meet the Ivatans in Batanes, Philippines
In the northernmost province of the Philippines, the Ivatan people (natives of Batanes), being exposed to the fury of many typhoons that pass through the Philippines, needed to adhere to agricultural practices that can withstand, and even make the most of, the often unforgiving elements. Some of their unique practices include:
Basco, Batanes, Philippines
- Fallowing: Only one to two parcels of land are planted each season. The remainder is used for fallowing, which entails plowing and tilling the land but leaving it unseeded in order to allow it to replenish nutrients. This system enables the maintenance of soil health.
- Water harvesting: Batanes receives light to moderate rainfall due to its location in the typhoon belt. The Ivatans take advantage of this by collecting rainwater rather than investing in costly irrigation systems. Additionally, they obtain water from springs and deep wells.
- Delineation of areas: The distinctive stone houses of the Ivatans are separated from farming areas, effectively preventing crop contamination by household chemicals.
- Typhoon-resistant crop planting: Due to the vulnerability of above-ground crops to typhoons, the Ivatans prioritize root crops such as sweet potato, garlic, shallots, and onions.
Support Our Farmers
Tuk Tuk Box partners with many local Southeast Asian US-based farmers, as well as some groups in the region through our charity partner Courageous Kitchen. Along with Southeast Asian growers, we strive to highlight members of other historically undeserved communities, including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and AAPI agriculturists.
Here are some of the farmers and agricultural organizations we know and love. We encourage you to think about where your food comes from and to join us in cultivating sustainable habits that will ensure a better future for our families:
- Kitazawa Seed Co. - Your leading source for Asian vegetable seeds since 1917 - serving commercial growers, home gardeners, and retailers.
- Black Food Sovereignty Coalition - Serves as a collaboration hub for Black and Brown communities to confront the systemic barriers that make food, place, and economic opportunities inaccessible to us.
- Tall Grass Food Box - A CSA that supports & encourages the sustainability of Black Farmers in NC, by increasing their visibility & securing space in the local marketplace.
- Lao Farmers Network - Established in 2014 by 17 Farmer Organizations with the purpose of strengthening cooperation among smallholder farmers.
- Root The Future - Thailand’s Largest Plant-Based/Vegan & Sustainability Community.
- Farmtastic - Alternative market to ensure small organic farmers make a fair wage.
- Lemon Farm Organic & Sustainable
- Raitong Organics Farm - Shop from Thailand working with local organic farmers and providing top quality food to consumers.
- Yasukochi Family Farms - Located in Oceanside, Ca. They have an amazing CSA Program that offers a great way to develop healthier eating habits while supporting your local community farmers.
- Farmer Mai Nguyen - A farmer and social justice activist. Specializes in growing heirloom crops using organic, drought-tolerant, and soil-enriching methods.
- JR Organics Farm - A traditional family farm, quality vegetables and fruit are grown using the finest fertilizers and the latest in organic cultivation.
- Urban Fresh Food Collective -A youth led South Seattle based org rooted in love and joy, to create innovative solutions in food, environmental, housing and economic justice.
- Marra Farms at South Park, Seattle - thrives to address community food security needs, provide a space for sustainable agriculture education, and engage community members.
- Hmong Farmers Association - A cooperative nonprofit, food hub, farm, and equal opportunity provider.
- Friendly Hmong Farms - Assisting local Hmong farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Durian Writer - importing Southeast Asian durian to the US market by sourcing directly from farmers in the region
- Kamayan Farm - A vegetable and flower farm just east of Seattle on Coast Salish and Snoqualmie People's land. Striving to weave together the stories of land, food, medicine, & culture.
- Namu Farm - Grows predominantly crops of the Asian diaspora. Their focus is to adapt both East Asian subsistence farming practices, as well as seed cultivars to the challenges of production farming in dry, hot conditions.
- Second Generation Seeds - A community project focused on preserving heritage crops, stories and foodways of the Asian diaspora.
Covid-19 has posed a threat to our food systems, disrupted them, and amplified issues that have existed for years. Nonetheless, food actors are adapting their methods of operation following the initial shock of the crisis.
Despite being the nation's biggest producers of staple crops and food, the majority of Southeast Asian countries are yet to reach their production limits. Capitalizing on the region's balanced climate, fertile lands, and mix of lowlands and uplands, forests, rivers, and coastlines, investors are likely to find opportunities not only in crop and livestock production, but also in food supply chain management, agriculture infrastructure, and safety, and agribusiness. It is essential to recognize agriculture's role in our heritage so we can advocate for food production that is efficient and environmentally friendly, while also actively supporting and empowering the communities that sustain what we consume.
Tuk Tuk Box is dedicated to highlighting our favorite farmers and eco-friendly businesses. As a loyal supporter, we appreciate you helping spread the word about local sustainable businesses. Thank you for encouraging us to explore more ways that we can preserve and honor our homeland.
- UCCE for Southeast Asian Farmers - sharing science-based information and relevant research through workshops, farm calls, and publications.
- Growing pains: Southeast Asian farmers need cheaper agritech
- Southeast Asia looks to Israeli tech to improve farming technique
- Understanding the complexities of organic farming in Thailand
- SUN SpACe - provides an Education and Training System to help Farmers understand the use and usefulness of the new technologies.