* Thai government's populist rice buying scheme proves costly
* India, Vietnam poised to snatch Thailand's rice exporter crown
* Thai rice exporters diversify, seek alternative sources of supply
* Government says willing to accept losses to support farmers
By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat
BANGKOK, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Millions of tonnes of rice that no one wants; huge losses for the state budget; farmers more interested in quantity than quality; exporters throwing in the towel. Thailand's world-beating rice industry is in a sorry state.
The government won election a year ago by promising to pay farmers double the market level at the time for their rice -- a policy to help the poor, ostensibly, but one that has backfired by making grain so expensive that hardly anyone is buying it.
As a result Thailand exported just 3.45 million tonnes in the first half, down 45 percent from the same 2011 period.
The Thai Rice Exporters' Association is expecting exports of no more than 6.5 million tonnes for the full year against 8 million to 10 million normally, and that means Thailand will probably lose its crown as the world's top rice shipper to India or Vietnam.
Exporters are struggling: the bigger ones are looking for opportunities in other countries or diversifying into other sectors to stay afloat, while the smaller ones are getting out.
The exporters association had 192 members last year and officials reckon only 30 to 40 can be certain of surviving, because they have the financial means to get into other businesses such as real estate and food processing.
"But small companies will have to get out of the business," said association president Korbsook Iamsuri, referring to exporters that ship just 500 to 1,000 tonnes a year.
Twenty companies have already resigned.
Among the bigger names, number two exporter Asia Golden Rice Co Ltd is investing in milling and exporting in neighbouring Cambodia as costs rise at home.
Uthai Produce Co Ltd has scaled down its exporting business in Thailand and is getting grain from Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan and elsewhere for clients in the United States, Canada and Asia.
"We still have our expertise. We are still keen on the rice exporting business. It's just that we're using our expertise to boost exports for other countries," said Charoen Laothammatas, president of Uthai Produce.
"I could quit the rice business here in Thailand one day, too, if the government carries on with this policy," he said.
PLOUGHING ON REGARDLESS
Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom is unapologetic about the cost of the scheme. "Our policy is to support farmers. And to do so, we need to accept some losses."
Despite the enormous cost to the state budget, the government has extended the scheme beyond its initial end date of June and will renew it for the main crop in October.
The government has spent 260 billion baht ($8.26 billion) on the scheme so far. For the period from October, it plans to set aside another 300 billion baht, which is equivalent to the total planned budget deficit for fiscal 2012/13.
Not all that money will be lost but the International Monetary Fund estimated in June the programme could cost about 1 percent of GDP annually, even before storage and management costs. That is about $3.8 billion a year.
Even that assumes the government can find buyers for the record 10 million tonnes of milled rice it has stockpiled.
It sold 240,000 tonnes to Ivory Coast in July but in general buyers have gone elsewhere, Thailand's reputation for logistical efficiency and reliability not counting for much in the face of big cost savings brought by Indian and Vietnamese rice.
The Thai government rice costs around $700 per tonne by the time it is ready for export, while market prices offered by India and Vietnam stand more than 40 percent less, at around $430 a tonne.
Thailand usually influences world prices but not this year, mainly because India returned to the market last September after a gap of four years following a food supply panic in 2007/2008.
At best, Thai rice has reached $640 per tonne this year and is now offered at around $580 by exporters who have managed to buy at perhaps 9,000 baht a tonne to fill orders, taking advantage of some farmers' need for quick cash.
Many farmers are throwing quality concerns to the wind since they know the government is offering 15,000 baht ($480) a tonne and has said it will buy every grain of rice if necessary.
"Who cares about quality? Farmers know they'll get 15,000 baht so they just grow more and more, and that's it," said Prasit Boonchuey, head of the Thai Farmers Association.
Many farmers had switched to lower-quality, short-grain rice strains that take less time to grow, he said.
A senior Agriculture Ministry official said that was particularly so in the well-irrigated centre of the country, which contributes half of annual production of about 30 million tonnes.
The implications for the Thai rice industry are serious if it loses the high-end market at the same time as it loses market share on common rice grades to India and Vietnam.
"It would take years to build up rice quality again, as now we have plenty of low-quality seeds but a lack of high-quality ones," said Vichai Sriprasert, a director at the Thai Rice Exporters Association.
The IMF report called the intervention scheme cumbersome and said small farmers often found it simpler to sell to middlemen, even at lower prices. "Hence, the programme could end up mainly benefiting large-scale producers and middlemen," it said.
The previous government tried to introduce a scheme that paid farmers the difference between what they got for their rice on the market and a guaranteed minimum price. This was resisted by many farmers and in the end the scheme ran side by side with the more traditional programme.
Rice intervention is always a murky affair in Thailand but opposition politicians say the nature and scale of the present scheme leave it open to corruption.
Grain is smuggled from Cambodia, for example, to exploit the higher prices in Thailand. Millers, big landowners and food companies benefit much more than the millions of poor farmers, critics say.
"Civil servants tell me there has been huge growth in the number of warehouses that have been developed to accommodate the rice scheme," former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said.
Grain stockpiling fees would pay for the warehouses in 38 months, he said.
"These guys are not just any ordinary entrepreneurs, these are people with connections to make sure that the government uses their facilities to stock their rice ... So you have all kinds of interests riding the rationale for deciding whether this programme should continue," he added. ($=31.50 Thai baht) (Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)