Food safety must get top priority

Food safety must get top priority

News reports that over 60% of samples of popular vegetable and fruits taken at shopping malls and markets are contaminated with pesticides -- some are highly toxic farm chemicals banned in several countries -- are too hard to swallow. It merely shows a failure of the state, despite an ambition to become the kitchen of the world, to come up with and implement measures to ensure food safety, and the dilemma for customers who have limited options to live healthy lifestyles.

To a certain extent, it's a dilemma for vegetable growers and farmers in the age of consumerism, which leaves them with little choice but to yield to the influence of agro business giants in the hope of making their produce attractive.

While the survey, carried out in late August by the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-PAN), a non-governmental organisation, concentrated on Bangkok and four other provinces, the situation regarding farm chemical use is generally the same for the whole country.

The survey, if anything, conforms to the history of commercial farming in this country, where farmers depends heavily on farm chemicals. Past surveys showed that even some organic vegetables were contaminated.

The August survey found that 64% or 13 of the products, including some staples that Thais eat in everyday life such as kana or Chinese kale, were not safe to eat and contained harmful chemicals exceeding the maximum residue limit (MRL). It is alarming as some of the so-called pak puen ban vegetables, a type of easy-growing, not-so-commercialised, vegetables such as sai bua or lotus stems or bai bua bok that normally do not require heavy use of farm chemicals, were found to be unsafe too.

The survey also suggested that all of the tested fruit was contaminated, while a third contained very high residues, particularly imported and domestic grapes, pineapples and papayas.

According to the survey, paraquat, the highly toxic herbicide which is classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as available for "restricted use", topped the list of toxic chemicals as it made up 38% of the residues. Others included glyphosate (6%), a chemical that requires strict control, and atrazine (4%). Both are weedkillers.

It is not certain if it's a coincidence that the survey results happened to come out at the same time as reports that the Department of Agriculture has discreetly extended the import and registration licence for highly toxic paraquat despite concerted efforts by a panel tasked with farm chemical controls to have it banned by 2019. The licence for this chemical, a popular choice of herbicide under the trade name Gramoxone, expired last month.

The licence extension, if true, means there will be no ban of paraquat by 2019. That means the department is ignoring concerns over the impact of the chemical, raised not only by non-government organisations but also by its bureaucratic partners like those in the Public Health Ministry, which is a key player in the panel.

If true, the extension of the licence is a disappointment but not the least surprise.

Over the past month, the Department of Agriculture has shown reluctance to approve the ban pressed by the Public Health Ministry, which has dealt with farmers who got ill from long-term use of the chemical in question.

The Department of Agriculture adamantly insisted that its authorities "lack enough information on the health impacts". It is a lame excuse given all the solid information on impact of the chemical provided by the health officials. There are valid concerns that the residues have entered the food chain, causing a long-term impact on the environment and human health.

The Public Health Ministry said over 50 other countries around the world have agreed to ban paraquat as well as chlorpyrifos.

According to 2016 figures, Thailand imported 31.5 million kilogrammes of paraquat and 2.1 million kg of chlorpyrifos, along with 61.8 million kg of glyphosate, another toxic chemical that has been banned by some 40 countries including Vietnam and China. Thailand's FTA Watch said the country ranks as the sixth largest importer of paraquat.

In recent months, the Department of Agriculture has insisted, however, that the 2019 time frame for the proposed ban is unrealistic. Despite its authority to impose a ban, the department instead has tried to pass the issue to another panel that includes representatives of chemical giants alongside its officials and other agencies. This explains why such a proposed ban will never be possible.

The department remains tight-lipped as health activists try to verify the report. They also threaten to bring the case to the Administrative Court.

This issue is a challenge for newly appointed Agriculture Minister Grisada Boonrach, former interior permanent secretary, and his deputies, in particular Wiwat Salyakamthorn, a renowned farm scholar who has championed a shift from conventional farming towards more sustainable production.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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