Natural selection: Bangkokians opt for organic at markets
While still in its infancy, the push towards sustainable, chemical-free food is gaining traction in Bangkok and regular events in the city are giving local farmers a chance to cash in on the demand
A crowd of 30 spectators quickly forms as two chefs frantically run from stall to stall, grabbing ingredients ranging from rice to shallots. Just 12 hours earlier this was the quiet dining area of the Thai restaurant Bo.Lan, but farmers and chefs have spent all morning converting the space into an organic farmers' market and cook-off arena.
What started out in January as a gathering of 12 local organic suppliers has quickly doubled in size, and now attracts over 200 shoppers every month. This month, the market celebrated its official grand opening by pitting two chefs _ Peter Pitakwong of Smith, and Jess Barnes of Quince _ against each other in a cooking competition in which they could only use food from the market.
The Bo.Lan Farmers' Market, one of only a handful of organic markets in Bangkok, reflects the growing demand for organic, sustainable and ethically produced food in Thailand, according to owner and head chef Dylan Jones. While still small, the market for organic products _ which are cultivated without pesticides or chemical additives _ has grown steadily. Exports have increased at a rate of 10% annually and will exceed 158 billion baht this year.
But just a few years ago it was nearly impossible to find organic produce in Bangkok, Jones said. Despite being one of the largest food exporters in the world, only 0.07% of farmland in Thailand was organic as of 2006, and the country imports about 60% of the organic food sold here, according to the Organic Trade Association. But as the market for such foods grows, more and more suppliers are switching to sustainable farming and applying for organic certification to capitalise on the new demand.
Adams Organics' parent company, for example, has been in agriculture for 50 years but decided to enter the organic produce market only last year.
"Since then, we've been growing rapidly," says Tim Chung, whose family has been running Adams for three generations. "We feel the demand is growing and in supermarkets there's a lot more space for organic food."
For others such as Raitong Organics, the small but burgeoning industry provides an opportunity to establish themselves without competition from large corporate growers.
"Organic farming allows us, as a small farm, to get into the market," owner Lalana Srikram said. Raitong's most popular products _ such as black sticky rice and gaba rice germinated in green tea _ would be too time-consuming and labour intensive for corporate farms to grow.
But organic farmers still face hurdles of their own, especially with distribution. Supermarkets and grocers have been slow to pick up organic foods, which are almost always more expensive than non-organic ones. Additionally, large supermarkets often charge for shelf space and impose penalties on suppliers for not keeping their shelves stocked.
"For an organic producer, who is basically governed by the seasons, it's hard to guarantee that they're going to have a fully stocked shelf for the whole week," Jones said. "It's really unfair for organic producers."
Some of the more established organic farms have successfully entered supermarkets _ Adams Organics can be found in 20 across Bangkok _ but for others, the new farmers' markets provide an opportunity to reach buyers without a middleman.
The Bo.Lan Farmers' Market was originally started to open a dialogue between shoppers and the people producing their food, Jones said. Other organic farmers' markets such as the Thai Green Market at Regent House, which is held every Thursday, try to provide healthier alternatives to supermarkets. The Shama Sukhumvit Farmers' Market, held on the third Sunday of each month, was founded with the idea of connecting people in urban and rural areas to promote sustainability and healthy living.
The blossoming emphasis on organic food follows a trend that has been building momentum in the West for years. In the US, the organic industry has been growing at a rate of 17-20% per year, according to the Consumer News and Business Channel.
Organic food is commonly defined as food grown without pesticides, not genetically modified and not containing chemical additives. In Thailand, the National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards sets guidelines for organic produce and livestock grown in the country, and farmers often seek certification from the US Department of Agriculture, Japanese Agricultural Standard, Australian Certified Organic and other foreign agencies.
Several years ago, most certified organic food grown in Thailand was for export and bound for European markets, according to a report by the Organic Trade Association. Over half of worldwide organic trading is done in Europe, with 45% in North America and only 2% in Asia.
However, Westerners living in Thailand have recently sparked demand for organic food in Bangkok, and farmers are starting to find a market at home.
"A lot of expats and Thais here who have lived and worked overseas are bringing their expectations with them _ they're expecting more," Jones said.
But it remains to be seen whether the market will expand beyond that base. Many Thais are not aware of the difference between certified organic food, non-certified organic food, processed food and other distinctions.
According to Ms Lalana, that could change as Thais become aware of the health effects of different foods. "People have a lot of health problems nowadays, and [they come] from what you eat," she said. "The health issue is more important to Thais than global warming and the environment, because it's tangible."
Lisa Thomas, director of corporate social responsibility at the Onyx Hospitality Group, which oversees the Shama Farmers Market, agrees and cites easy access to information through social networks and media as a potential tipping point. "People in the city have become more health conscious ... and more are careful about the food they consume," she said.
As for Jones, he's trying to incorporate special events such as the celebrity chef cook-off to draw Thais in and get them interested in the Farmers' Market, which has predominantly been attended by foreigners and expats, "with a trickling of Thais". But for now, he's satisfied with the market's fast growth and doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon.
"Honestly, I hope this outgrows Bo.Lan," Jones said.
The Bo.Lan Farmers' Market is held on the first Saturday of the month in Sukhumvit Soi 26 from 8am to 2.30pm, Shama Sukhumvit Farmers' Market is on the third Sunday of the month in Sukhumvit Soi 2, from 9am to 3pm, and the Thai Green Market is every Thursday at Regent House on Ratchadamri Road from 8am to 12pm.
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Writer: Adam Janofsky