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Food & Beverage

Thai sugar producers squeezed by drought and health concerns

Beverage makers opt for less sweet drinks as consumers watch waistlines

Thai sugar production for the 2020-21 crop year is expected to be less than half the record-breaking harvest of the 2017-18 season.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's sugar cane growers are some of the world's most productive, but they face two major challenges: a severe drought attributed to climate change and growing health consciousness among consumers.

According to the Thai Sugar Millers Corporation, an industry group, domestic sugar production for the 2020-21 crop year (November 2020 to October 2021) will be around 6.6 million tons, the lowest level in a decade and less than half the 14.7 million tons of sugar produced in the 2017-18 season, when Thailand had a record sugar cane harvest.

The drought is a major factor weighing on cane yields. Even in the wet season, Thailand has had less rainfall this year than usual. Output in the upcoming crop year is expected to be roughly the same as in the 2020-2021 season. As they adjust to global warming, many sugar cane farmers are switching to cassava, which is more resistant to drought.

Changing tastes among Thai consumers also help explain the decline in sugar production. Aiming to tackle health problems such as obesity and diabetes, Thailand imposed a sugar tax in 2018 -- the higher the sugar content, the more tax beverage makers pay.  The tax was raised the following year. Although a second hike scheduled for October may be postponed, the levy has discouraged beverage makers from producing sugary drinks.

Tighter supplies and higher taxes on sugar are likely to raise costs for food and beverage producers, further depressing demand for the ingredient and hurting sugar producers.

Beverage makers are making less sugary drinks as consumers reach for healthier alternatives.   © Getty Images

Beverage makers are making less treacly concoctions as consumers reach for healthier alternatives. Coca-Cola recently launched a new zero-sugar soft drink brand. Its competitors are doing the same. TCP Group, which makes Red Bull's well-known energy drink locally, also came out with a new specialty drink with less sugar and Korean ginseng extract added.

With their customers more concerned with their health these days, analysts said beverage makers are adding natural extracts and vitamins to their products to keep people buying. TCP Group, for example, entered the functional drink market in 2018, immediately after the government imposed the sugar tax. Its revenue from functional and specialty drinks rose from 7 billion baht in 2018 to 9.2 billion baht in 2020.

These moves are driven both by rising costs for sugar and the desire to retain share in the Thai soft drink market.

"Consumers are concerned a lot about heath, and we can see that beverage makers are adjusting themselves to match the situation quite well," said an analyst at Kasikorn Research Center, adding that higher sugar prices due to lower production are another reason for beverage makers to cut the sugar content of their products.

In Thailand, more than 5 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, costing the government billions of baht annually in public heath spending.

The sugar tax has weighed on Thailand's sweetened soft drink market, which shrank to 10.4 billion baht ($320 million) this year, down from 13.1 billion baht before the tax took effect.

Despite this, the combined sweetened and nonsweetened soft drink market is still growing in Thailand. the Kasikorn Research Center forecasts the overall soft drink market to grow 1.5% in 2021, to nearly 200 billion baht ($6.1 billion) as consumer behavior shifts.

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