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A Ban on Toxic Farm Chemicals: Thailand’s long road to food and farm safety

The recent ban on three farm chemicals seen as highly hazardous has raised the public debates to another level; whether the country’s long-time chemical based farming should shift to something else

6th was the place Thailand was ever ranked among top-ten countries with the heaviest use of pesticides in the world.

That was in 2014, during the decade which the country saw the use of pesticides climb up continuously. According to the statistics by the Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Economics Office, in 2014 alone Thailand had imported around 147, 400 tons of pesticides, being worth around 22.8 billion baht.

Over the past five years from 2014 to 2018, Thailand had imported nearly 827,000 tons of pesticides, being worth nearly 127 billion baht, according to the same offices, which released the figures last year.

Imports and uses of pesticides in the country would not have attracted attention from the public at large if there have been no reports of harmful effects of herbicide Glyphosate and Paraquat, and insecticide Chlorpyrifos, both on the environment and the public health.  

The campaign against those farm chemicals was first drummed up in the mid-2010s by a network of over 600 organisations promoting sustainable agriculture and consumption. It then gained momentum and won support from the Public Health Ministry a few years later.

The issue has since grasped public attention widely, with heated debates whether or not they should be banned following their toxicity and harmful effects. It has just settled recently with the final say by the National Hazardous Substances Committee, who decided in late September to maintain the banning on Paraquat and Chlorpyrifos as previously resolved in late last year without any further consideration while keeping Glyphosate under the limits following the US complaint.

Following the September decision, which has become final on those three chemicals, the issue has shifted to another level, with wider debates on which direction Thailand’s future farming should move forward.

At the Dialogue Forum 6: A Ban on Toxic Farm Chemicals: Thailand’s long road to food safety and the “(safe) Kitchen of the World”, organized by Bangkok Tribune and partners with the support of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Thailand Office), the invited speakers have shared their views and insights, pointing similarly that Thailand’s farm practice must be reformed or it cannot survive this way although some proposals including Sustainable Agriculture has not yet won a consensus.

 “We desperately need to review our farm practice. It’s almost agreed among concerned parties that it cannot survive this way,” said Witoon Lianchamroon, Director of BioThai Foundation, promoting biodiversity, food sovereignty, and sustainable agriculture. ”It must adapt to a more sustainable practice, but how to adapt is the topic that needs further discussions in society.”

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Thailand’s farm practice and reliance on farm chemicals  

Thailand’s farming significantly shifted in 1960s following the trend of the Green Revolution, under which modern farm technology was rapidly developed and introduced to help farmers leap from a conventional to modern practice.

The development was encouraged by the country’s first Social and Economic Development Plan in 1960, which promoted a number of modern technology and infrastructure including irrigation to improve the country’s farming.

That also included the introduction of high-yield varieties of crops including rice varieties, resulting in more intensive farming; the practice which Mr. Witoon, who has been studying Thailand’s farm development extensively, said prompted a lack of farm ecological balance.

Without rest, rice, the county’s key crop, was grown on the same plots of land all year round. What was traded with increased production and yields (from 400 to 700 kilograms per rai, for instance) was the loss of farm biodiversity and ecological balance. What followed were outbreaks of weeds and pests, which resulted in the need for farm chemicals to help control their outbreaks since.

“It’s not just rice, but other economic crops; be they sugarcane, cassava, oil palm, and rubber, also faced a similar situation,” said Mr. Witoon, referring to Thailand’s decades of reliance on farm chemicals.

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The ills

For decades of heavy use of farm chemicals, the effects have started to show themselves.

BioThai’s networks, several of which focusing their work on organic farming and being among the first which have realized the effects of farm chemicals, started to voice their concerns out through the decade.

According to the study by the House’s ad-hoc committee on toxic farm chemicals control study, Thailand had banned at least 65 farm chemicals considered hazardous since 2000, but it was not until the effects of the three farm chemicals were realized widely, with a number of studies and research consolidating the claims over the past few years, that the public started to pay attention to use and management of farm chemicals in the country.

The effects claimed range from those on nervous systems and reproduction health, carcinogenic stimulus, as well as the effects on the environment.

Having reviewed a number of studies submitted to it, the Public Health Ministry in 2017 decided to rule them out.

Throughout the past few years, Thailand has observed heavy debates on whether or not the chemicals should be banned.

Glyphosate and Paraquat alone compose almost half of the farm chemicals imported to the country, with the value combined around Bt 15 to 17 billion, according to the study of the committee.

This suggests a large number of farmers who rely on these chemicals, whose reliance has become one of the critical arguments from anti-farm chemicals banning groups.

It was not until late October last year that the previous National Hazardous Substances Committee, comprising key top officials from concerned ministries including Public Health, Agriculture, and Industry, as well as academic advisors, resolved to ban the three chemicals.

However, as the new set of the committee took the office, the committee’s resolution was changed at the meeting in late November; to ban only Paraquat and Chlorpyrifos, while sparing Glyphosate with only limited use following the US’s complaint against the banning.

The resolution was set to take effect on June this year amid strong opposition against the ban by anti-farm chemicals banning groups.

The committee took the matter to its meeting in September again before deciding to stand firm on its November resolution. The groups, meanwhile, have also filed their complaints to the Administrative Court to revoke the committee’s previous resolutions; the issue which is still under the Court’s deliberation.

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The debates

Dr. Chaipat Chanvilai, Secretary to the Standing Committee on Commerce and Intellectual Property of the House, which has received complaints from the groups, reflected some few observations and points that the anti-farm chemical banning groups have against the ban.

He said the recent banning was deemed to infringe on farmers’ ights as it too rushed to enforce with a tight deadline and limited options given to farmers to switch to.

The banning, he said, would have based on facts, but several parts used to accompany the decisions are still questionable, especially those from some studies viewed by some farm chemical experts with opposing views as not quite scientific.

The groups also questioned on the research procedures, which he said, must also be based on science or medical science, and follow scientific testing strictly. This usually takes a long period before concluding, not just one to three months as presented. The capacity of the researchers who conducted the studies is also questionable, Dr. Chaipat claimed.

“The best bike mechanic would never be able to repair a jet fighter. Similarly, we have a question on some of the researchers who conducted the studies on contaminations in the environment and the effects of the chemicals on public health…

“So, we believe that the study results are flawed, academically,” said Dr. Chaipat, who also chairs the newly set up Network for Safety Chemical Usage for Sustainable Development.

Dr. Chaipat said it would be more haphazard without farm chemicals. Chemicals, he said, have been helping the world to develop for over a hundred year, such as helping maintain people’s good health and prolong their lives, for example. 

The issue is really about how to use them safely, or how to regulate them or not misuse them to the point that failing their set purposes, Dr. Chaipat remarked.

Farm chemicals safety, he added, is subject to assessments from time to time, and there have been no solid proofs that the chemicals cause some illnesses as claimed. Cancers, for instance, can occur due to a number of factors, he cited.

“I would like us to look at the chemicals with no biases,” said Dr. Chaipat, adding he did not oppose the ban if needed to and agreed with the idea to put farm chemicals under control as well as a safe level.

Following the ban, Dr. Chaipat said he agreed that farm practice in the country should be reviewed. However, some advanced technology should not be quickly judged as a sin, or causes adverse impacts on society, he said, referring to farm chemicals which are often branded as “toxic”.

Trusted science, he added, is needed to help settle disagreements over issues relating to them, including their effects on the environment or public health.

“As we are addressing the issue; whether it concerns chemical-based farming or organic farming, progressive farming or “sustainable agriculture”, we need a discussion to see how our farming should be best practised, whether it should be integrated with chemicals or not, and how. 

“The fact is we are practising quite a large-scale farming or pursuing farm industry, so we may have to accept some unpleasant elements. The challenge is how we can put them under control and make this acceptable by all sides,” said Dr. Chaipat.

Dr. Chaipat said under the country’s prime farm policy addressed in the Constitution, farming here must be efficient, appropriately proportional, high in quality, low in production costs, safe, and competitive. These are the challenges that the government must address and introduce mechanisms to realise them.

In overseas, Dr. Chaipat said, the Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) is widely practised. However, farmers here lack the knowledge to pursue this and they tend to use farm chemicals excessively. They must be registered under the GAP, he suggested. 

“The farming that can “feed the world” cannot be organic, in my view. It’s just a dream, and it has misled, resulting in the banning as such. This is because it cannot accomplish the requirements as addressed in the supreme law,” said Dr. Chaipat.

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The country’s road to food and farm safety

Dr. Adisak Sreesunpagit, a former Director-General of the Agriculture Department, responsible for the regulation of farm chemicals, reflected from his experience that toxic-free farming cannot be realistically applied over the whole country or for every farm crop. 

He cited the country’s location which is in a tropical region, full of pests and weeds the whole year. So, it’s hard not to use chemicals to help eradicate them, he said.

“It may be possible to conduct toxic-free farming for certain crops or in certain areas (5-10 rai), but not the whole country which is too vast to be covered by the practice,” said Dr. Adisak.

GAP and Organic products logos promoted by the Agriculture Ministry
Credit: GAP&Organic FB Page

Dr. Adisak agreed that the GAP should be pursued here as a path towards food and farm safety. The practice, he said, has been introduced for many years, but hardly any governments have paid attention to it. 

Under the GAP, Dr. Adisak said farmers can practise farming in a good and safe manner. They may still use chemicals, but they will use them safely, he said. The GAP, he added, will provide farmers with instructions and help certify their products, similar to organic farming but with different conditions.

“So, the GAP should be supported by us so that our farmers can have the instructions and farm practice safely. Their produce would be certified and safe for both domestic consumptions and exports, with no residues beyond a standard. Their investment costs would also be low, allowing them to compete in the world market.

 “The ‘Kitchen of the World’ policy needs quality products, which are safe and low in production costs. Otherwise, we cannot compete with anyone, not being able to fulfil our goal to become the ‘Kitchen of the World’,” said Dr. Adisak, referring to the country’s ambitious farm policy to produce good farm produce for exports to feed the world.

GAP watermelons promoted in the Northeast by the DOA
Credit: GAP&Organic FB Page

For Prokchol Ousap, Coordinator of the Thai Pesticide Alert Network or Thai-PAN, she has a reason to push for a ban on farm chemicals, taking it as the first step towards farm chemicals management with a more precautionary approach. 

Ms. Prokchol said when dealing with the use of farm chemicals, what is missing is a calculation on some “externalities” or the hidden costs incurred from the practice over the damaged environment and public health.

According to the study by Kasetsart University’s Economics Faculty she cited, the externalities out of the use of farm chemicals were calculated to be around 76 satangs per every one baht of the import values, or up to Bt 27 billion, compared with over Bt 30 billion of the imports of the chemical in some years.

Her Thai-PAN has been examining farm chemical residues in vegetable and fruit samples in the market since 2012, and over the last three years, it has sent samples to the UK labs, which can cover contamination of over 450 substances. 

The network learned that up to 41% of the samples sent the last year were found to be contaminated, compared with only around 1.4% of the EU’s (2018).

“My question is, when can Thailand reduce the rate of farm chemical residues up to par, or meet the international standard?” asked Ms. Prokchol.

Credit: Thai-PAN

According to the network’s study, during 1993-2009, the EU had improved its chemical management system, amending the law and shifting the policy from banning to registration of hazardous farm chemicals.

This has enabled it to introduce criteria and a standard for chemical producers and traders to meet. If they fail to meet these criteria or a standard, they cannot register their products. 

Following the law amendment, the EU has observed that up to 700 out of around 1,000 chemicals have not passed the test, nor been re-registered. In Thailand, there are around 150 farm chemicals which are deemed as hazardous, Thai-PAN noted.

“How can the current farm chemical management handle these chemicals effectively?” Ms. Prokchol asked.

Ms. Prokchol said what the farm networks have been pushing for is not totally about banning all hazardous chemicals but managing only highly hazardous ones.

Banning farm chemicals, she said, is about managing the chemicals as the first step, to ensure that no harmful substances will flood into the country before other precautionary approaches or a polluter pay principle are developed and applied.

“They are not taxed, the question is, who will pay for those externalities? (which are their effects we all have to shoulder),” Ms. Prokchol remarked.

Credit: Thai-PAN

Mr. Witoon said Glyphosate and Paraquat combined are already half of the total amount of the farm chemicals imported to the country, while Chlorpyrifos is a pesticide which is imported the largest.

So, the banning is directly involved with the important policy of the state in managing the whole farm chemicals in the country, he said.

Management of farm chemicals or related policies, by no means, is not only about farmers or public health, but also other big names like the U.S companies or government, who have a role under this modern farm technology and trade.

But first and foremost, Mr. Witoon said the issues between the banning of the farm chemicals and the pursuit of organic farming need to be separated for better understanding.

The banning of the chemicals, he said, is actually about managing mass or mono-cropping, and hardly has anything to do with organic farming because the sector hardly uses farm chemicals.

The banning of hazardous farm chemicals is, in fact, a general practice, widely adopted by a number of countries promoting mono-cropping, he added. Brazil, which has an area to grow sugarcane larger than Thailand over 7 times, for instance, has decided to ban Paraquat already (by September 22). While other countries like Malaysia or Nigeria have also done the same.

At present, over 60 countries have banned the chemical, and there are likely to be more, according to Mr. Witoon, who has been monitoring the trend.

Besides their safety, mono-cropping, which is two-thirds of the country’s farm area, offer farmers just little profits, Mr. Witoon said, citing the study by the Bank of Thailand, which found that the highest profit farmers can get is around Bt 1,500 per rai.

What is hidden in the system, Mr. Witoon said, is a massive subsidy, which costs a large amount of the state budget. This year it has stood at Bt 70 billion, he cited.

“Mono-cropping is the farm security problem, which is increasingly critical. What we wish is the mono-crop farming must be changed, shifting toward a more sustainable manner,” said Mr. Witoon.

“I wish to see the reform of our whole farming system. Use of farm chemicals is just an immediate issue, which has reflected the ill of our farming system. Those affected by such farming are not just farmers, but consumers, and other elements in society.

“I wish to see the banning of the chemicals this time lead to the reform of the whole farming system. We do not want to see the banning of these chemicals and the next ones. We wish to see structural changes,” said Mr. Witoon.

Hom Mali rice under the pilot sustainable rice growing project in the Northeast.

The way forward

At the House, a number of MPs have been interested in the issue and anxiously waiting for change they have pushed too.

According to Chair of the House’s ad-hoc committee on farm chemicals control study, Chavalit Vichayasuthi, a number of MPs have been interested in the issue and they agreed that the good health of the public comes first, while acknowledging that other sectors should not be left behind either.

Mr. Chavalit, also Deputy Leader of Pheu Thai Party, said the House voted late last year 433:0 to support the ban on the chemicals, the act which demonstrated the MPs’ will to champion public health.

The committee is now pushing for a new motion to set up another committee to study the whole farming system and development and push it toward “Sustainable Agriculture”. 

In his view, to move forward, there may be a need to separate large-scale farming and small-scale farming because they are under different practices.

He said to help farmers to be more resilient and self-reliant, the new Theory Agriculture conceptualized by the late King Rama 9 should be applied. Also, the UN has set a goal toward sustainable agriculture in the next ten years as a guideline for the country to pursue along.

 “We here are not talking about the total organic farming because we also view that it’s not feasible,” said Mr. Chavalit.

“Sustainable Agriculture, in our view, means a various kind of agricultural practices; be they agroforestry, the new Theory Agriculture, and whatever that helps us sustainably practise farming.” 

Credit: The House’s ad-hoc committee on farm chemicals control study

At present, the country has set a goal of 30% increase for organic farming in 2030, and 100% for sustainable agriculture the same year, and the House is drafting a law regarding the so-called Sustainable Agriculture as a proposal for the public to debate once again.

Mr. Witoon just said; “Farming is not just about farming. It’s about the food that we eat three meals a day or more. That’s the reason why are all involved in this; helping one another shape the course of the country the way we wish to see it move toward.”