Organic food goes through the roof
The chemical contamination of vegetables concerns many Bangkok residents _ but clean and safe fresh food may be as close as an elevator ride to the roof of your condo.
- Published: 16/06/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
SKY’S THE LIMIT: Below, above, and left, many techniques and structures are used to battle extreme weather, make the most of good weather and achieve a good yield at the rooftop garden on top of Kasetsart University.
Urban farming, the practice of growing food within the city, often on rooftops, has gained in popularity over the past decade, not only because of its convenience, but also because growers can produce their own chemical-free vegetables and fruit.
While the practice is still new to most Bangkok residents, it doesn't take much space or time to develop. Its supporters say it has incredible potential to provide food security if regular supplies dwindle. In the event of another flood, rooftop farms and surrounding farmlands can serve as emergency food sources. Bangkok's eastern district of Nong Chok produces enough rice to sustain the city for up to 2.5 months.
But one of the biggest attractions is being able to avoid the massive amounts of pesticide used in commercial farming.
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR PASINEE SUNAKORN
In 2007, Food and Agriculture Organisation figures showed Thailand had 27,126 agricultural chemical brands registered for use _ more than China (20,000), Vietnam (1,743), Indonesia (1,158), Malaysia (917), Myanmar (818) and Laos (100) combined.
Despite overwhelming evidence warning of the detrimental effects of chemical farming, Thailand continues the practice to keep up with its growing population and to stay competitive in the export market. The chemical sector is booming, but at what cost to the people of Thailand?
BioThai Foundation assistant director Kingkorn Narintarakul Na Ayutdhaya says it's difficult to determine the extent of contamination in produce such as pak kana (kale) and rice, however, their own tests had proved worrying when compared with European Union safety standards.
''One third of vegetables found in markets contained more chemicals than European Union maximum residue levels,'' Ms Kingkorn said.
''We studied pak kana and found that in a 45-day growth period, it's sprayed with pesticides 25 times ... we have a lower standard than the EU.''
Many have turned to shopping at organic markets to stem the amount of chemicals in their diets, but produce can be expensive and options limited when compared with the bounty found at normal markets. Still, there is hope.
The private sector is starting to take notice of how economically viable the urban farming trend can be and have begun integrating it into their business models.
Novotel Hotel in Siam Square is the first hotel in Thailand to commercialise urban farming as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. They grow Spirulina, a blue-green microalgae sold as a diet supplement, and used to treat malnutrition, in dozens of trashcan sized vats on their roof. The finished product, a sticky green paste, is then added to Novotel's sauces, drinks, and even mud spa treatments. The algae tinges the food with a green colour, but doesn't affect the taste.
Spirulina associate Daniel Koeppel said this CSR project ''creates additional revenue by renting out your commercial no-value areas''. Their revenue generating CSR endeavour may well serve as a role model for Bangkok's hotel industry.
Another private company, a textile factory in central Bangkok, is trying to scale up urban farming on a more community based level.
Isavaret and Amphai Tamonut won US$50,000 (1.5 million baht) in Holcim Foundation funding to transform their family textile factory into an ''Urban Farm Urban Barn''. The farm will be developed on four rai of land just a block away from Kasikorn Bank headquarters and is watered by canals that feed into the Chao Phraya River.
At the moment, only a small patch of pak guang thong (Chinese mustard cabbage) thrives but the Tamonut clan hopes to grow more than 10 different kinds of vegetables. The urban farm plans to sell produce for a price below what any supermarket could offer.
Mr Isavaret said: ''If we're saving money on not using chemicals, then it [produce] should be cheaper for the people.''
Still, these examples of commercialising urban farming cannot promise widespread food chain changes. At the moment, commercialising urban farming is not working to change anything on a systemic level.
It is still mainly for the upper class who can afford the products. Rooftop farming does not fare any better.
The small amount of rooftop farming that goes on in Bangkok does not grow enough on a wide enough scale to be commercially viable. People who maintain them usually reserve the harvest for a close-knit group of people.
Urban landscape expert Kanokwalee Suteethorn pointed out another issue: ''A small plot of land does not take very long per day to maintain, but people often get too lazy or are too busy to take care of it.''
The landscape architecture researcher at Chulalongkorn University believes it is dangerous to depend on a collective attitude shift to make concrete changes.
''Big cities, such as Bangkok, are run by economic forces. Things happen usually due to economic viability. To create change or stop urban growth [heading] in [the] wrong direction, it needs to be made economically [unattractive].'' This could be accomplished, he said, by lowering taxes for people who develop according to land use plans.
He suggests stemming further suburban development on to farmlands by increasing fuel taxes. He said this would encourage people to save money by living in condominiums within the city centre and develop vertically, rather than horizontally.
Bangkok is in an especially fragile position due to its rapid and unplanned urbanisation. One of the most significant criteria for Bangkok's early settlement was the arable lands fed by the Chao Phraya. Dr Suteethorn said Bangkok and surrounding cities have just 30.71% arable land left after one short century. Some indigenous species of rice and fruit, including the ubiquitous som kiew wan (local type of tangerine), have been wiped out from local terrain. This means more chemicals and pesticides will be needed to grow it in unfamiliar rural terrain where it is not naturally productive and may not grow back as abundantly.
From top of the house to the table
Getting dinner on the table can be a long process. First, you have to decide on what you want, then sit through peak hour traffic to get to the grocery store. After that, you need to sift through produce at the store, wait in line to pay for it, drive back into the traffic, then put it all together at home.
PHOTO: JESS BARNES
Melbourne chef Jess Barnes, who is now based in Bangkok, is one of a growing number of urban farmers who uses the time he saves from harvesting from his rooftop farm to do something more worthwhile with his life. He started his project six months ago on top of his apartment building.
To him, it is important to learn what's available here and utilise it instead of immediately think: ''Oh well, I want to make this, I need these type of herbs''.
The 4.6 square metres of roof space in Phra Khanong boasts 300 different fruit and vegetable plants. He grows tomatoes, eggplants, pomegranates, basil, lemongrass, and 40 other different edible species.
Maintenance isn't as strenuous as you'd imagine. Mr Barnes spent two hours a day for a month getting everything set up.
''But once you set it up it can be reasonably easy to maintain,'' he said.
His new restaurant keeps him busy about 13 hours a day, but maintaining his garden takes just 20 minutes a day of watering and two to three hours of the week gardening.
Bangkok's blazing sun and heavy rains can make gardening on an exposed rooftop difficult, but he's found some solutions through trial and error.
Mr Barnes hasn't found any gardening books in English on the subject so, ''it's really just setting it up and just letting it go.''
He combats Thailand's extreme weather with both plastic and verdant shading.
''What we're trying to do is create areas in the garden where there's enough foliage to create shade and reduce the heat and keep the moisture in so some of the small plants have a chance to grow without everything being bleached by the sun,'' he said.
In terms of how important green living has been in his life, he said: ''It's been an important part of my career trying to utilise products that are sustainable or are local.''
When his restaurant needs fresh herbs for the night's ''eurofusion special'', he just grabs it from home instead of going to the market.
About the author
- Writer: Jennifer Katanyoutanant