Thailand, the world's top rice exporter, has developed a new high-grade, disease-resistant strain it hopes will bolster sales to the West and Japan. According to officials, Pathum Thani 1 is nearly identical to Thailand's popular, top-quality jasmine rice but easier and cheaper to grow. "Thailand's long-term rice strategy is to develop, grow and export more high-grade rice in order to add value to our exports," director-general of Thailand's commerce ministry's foreign trade department, Karoon Kittisataphorn, told Reuters. According to Shucheep Hansaward, Thailand's minister of agriculture and cooperatives, Pathum Thani 1, which is said to be less fragrant but just as tasty as jasmine rice, can be grown year-round and can replace low-grade rice. "The Thai government has supported the cultivation of the new variety, and we aim for Pathum Thani 1 to eventually replace the low-quality rice planted in irrigated fields," the minister told a news conference. Thailand produces some 24 million tons of rice in each crop year, and generates about $1.53 bn annually from exports to 120 countries worldwide. About four million tons of production is low grade, and the government spends billions each year buying surplus supplies to support domestic prices. The worldwide market for low-grade Thai rice is shrinking as the country faces increased competition from countries such as China and Vietnam that can produce at a lower cost, and in high-end European and North American markets, consumers are demanding better rice but at a reasonable price. "We want to create a new image for Thai rice. When anybody thinks of rice from Thailand, they will only think of fine quality, no more low grade," Karoon said. "Pathum Thani 1 will do Thailand very proud." For years Thailand has been producing aromatic jasmine, or Thai Hom Mali rice, but the cost to produce it is high and the growing season short. The new variety is resistant to insects such as the brown planthopper and white-backed ricehopper, as well as most diseases. According to the developer of the new strain Dheeraporn Boozaya-Angoon, growing this new rice requires fewer pesticides and fertilisers. She also told Reuters that the new rice could be planted year-round because it is less photosensitive than Hom Mali rice, which can only be planted once a year in northeast Thailand. "With the new rice grade, Thailand will be able to expand its export markets," said the president of Thai Rice Exporters' Association, Vicharn Boosarawongse. "There is still a lot of demand out there for Thai fragrant rice."