Traditionally an agrarian economy with rice as its main product, the country's agricultural sector has since expanded to cope with the demands of its newly industrialized state. Thai agriculture has a clear advantage over other newly industrializing economies, namely the large portion of land allocated for cultivation, a climate suited to the growth of a wide variety of crops, and high quality strains of agricultural products.
In 1960, agriculture contributed over 40 percent of the national income. This contribution steadily declined due to the intense and rapid growth of the manufacturing sector. By the end of the 1980s, agriculture merely accounted for 17 percent of GDP, which declined even further to 12 percent until the late 1990s, to below 10 percent in 1999. The same pattern exists in terms of its contribution to exports, which stood at 46.9 percent in 1980 and plummeted to 9 percent by 1998.
However, these figures do not indicate a weakening of the sector's significance to the Thai economy, but more a strengthening of the industry and service sectors. Agriculture still accounts for 4 of the country's top exports— rice, canned fish, frozen or chilled shrimp, and rubber— and continues to serve as the foundation of booming manufacturing ventures such as food processing. Processed food such as canned fruits, vegetables, seafoods, and ready-to-eat meals, also enjoy a healthy domestic market, along with sugar and flour.
The agricultural sector has consistently employed about 50 percent of Thailand's 30 million-strong work-force. In 1993, farm population accounted for about 57 percent of the total workforce. If those indirectly engaged in agribusiness industries were included, the estimate would be even higher. Economists predicted that the 1 to 4 million people left unemployed by the 1997 financial crisis in the late 1990s would be absorbed by the agricultural sector.