Rice production in Laos

Rice is the main crop in Laos, with 80% of the land in Laos which is suitable for growing crops planted with rice. Unsurprisingly Laos has one of the highest per capita level of rice consumption in the world and relatively little of the rice grown in Laos is exported.

About Rice Production in Laos

Rice farming has a long history in Laos. Rice farming in Southern Laos is believed to have commenced around 4,000 BC, with domesticated water buffalo and iron tipped ploughs in use as early as 500 BC. The know-how to grow rice is believed to have been brought to the region by the Tai ethnic group which emigrated south along the Mekong River from China.

From the earliest times rice farming in Laos was mostly confined to the lowland areas and the plateaus in the north of the country. Over 80% of Laos is mountainous with slopes of 30% or more, and an average height of 1,500 above sea level in the hilly north of the country. Rice farming is possible in mountainous terrain with the use of terracing but this form of rice cultivation is heavy on labour and less productive than lowland farming on a flat landscape.

One of the many rice fields in Laos
One of the many rice fields in Laos

Agriculture is the main form of employment for people in Laos. 85% of the population is estimated to work in the sector which generates over half of the country’s GDP. The main products, along with rice, include coffee, tea, sweetcorn, sugar cane, cotton, poultry and cattle. The least profitable of these products is rice, which given that rice is the main agricultural product in Laos, explains why the country is so poor.

Laos borders Vietnam and Thailand which both have massive rice production industries which reduces the opportunity for regional trading opportunities with partners easily accessible by South East Asia’s road network. The inefficiency of the Laotian rice growing industry makes it hard for Lao farmers to compete.

In the rice growing centres of South East Asia, particularly the flat Central Region of Thailand, farmers can grow two crops a year through use irrigation and use of fertilisers. In Laos one crop a year is the norm. Another difference is in the level of mechanisation. Rice production is labour intensive and the use of planting and harvesting machines is critical for making rice production profitable. The Lao rice farming industry has an overall low level of mechanisation which make rice production in Laos relatively labour intensive, and yields therefore lower incomes for the people supplying labour to commercial rice growing farms.

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