'Organic' food can still bedevil your health

'Organic' food can still bedevil your health

Various types of vegetables are put on display at a fresh market in Nonthaburi. Random food safety tests have found that a large percentage of fruits and vegetables contain harmful chemical residues in excess of the allowed limit. (Photo by Kitja Apichonrojarek)
Various types of vegetables are put on display at a fresh market in Nonthaburi. Random food safety tests have found that a large percentage of fruits and vegetables contain harmful chemical residues in excess of the allowed limit. (Photo by Kitja Apichonrojarek)

Despite all my self-indulgences such as my habit of going on binges, I consider myself a health conscious person. I swoon over the word "organic." Organic rice. Organic coffee. Organic eggs... sometimes I have even sipped organic wine, out of conscience.

Needless to say, I usually pay more to buy so-called organic products. Despite my not knowing whether they are really chemical-free, or harvested on organic farms as labelled, I buy them anyway.

Even if I do not fully believe money can buy happiness, I trust it can buy us healthier products. Perhaps I am fooling myself, or just simply naive.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

In fact, I suspect the money I have spent could have been wasted and the "organic" products might have been tainted with chemicals. Thailand still lacks a reliable auditing standard to certify which products are organic or chemical-free.

I am not paranoid. Food safety tests in recent years have shown that our belief that organic vegetables and fruits are healthy and possibly chemical-free is false.

In May 2016, the Thai-Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-PAN), a consumers' protection group, revealed that its testing of samples of popular fruits and vegetables in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Ubon Ratchathani showed that 46.6% contained chemical residues higher than accepted standards.

The most shocking fact is that 138 samples, or 57% of the tested fruits and vegetables, were found to be contaminated with chemicals at unsafe levels.

As if that were not enough, one quarter of the products sampled that were labelled as organic by producers, in fact contained chemical residues exceeding accepted standards. At this point, I don't know what is worse -- feeling anguished from knowing you have been fooled or fearing the health impact from eating chemically tainted legumes.

More recently in January, another random test by Thai-PAN found that two-thirds of samples -- 30 types of vegetables harvested on hydroponic farms -- were in excess of the maximum residue limit. This indicates that even hydroponic vegetables which are cultivated in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution, without the use of soil, can also contain chemical substances. Needless to say, consumers, including myself, are willing to pay for those fancy futuristic words tagged with the products thinking they would be a safe choice.

Believe it or not, chemical residues in our salads are the byproducts of the state's lax regulation on chemical use in the agriculture sector.

Our authorities still allow the use of paraquat, chlorpyrifos and glyphosate. These pesticides have been banned or are subjected to severe regulation and restricted use in many countries. For example, the weed-killing paraquat has been banned in 52 countries and 17 countries have imposed strict regulations on its use.

Indeed, consumer groups have tried to pressure state agencies to ban the chemicals. This request has been backed by the Public Health Ministry. There have been many studies indicating chemicals used on a farm could be passed to consumers. For example, a study by Pornpimol Kongthip, a researcher at the Faculty of Public Health, Mahidol University, showed that paraquat can be transferred from mother to baby in the womb. In her research, 53 toddlers in Amnat Charoen, Kanchanaburi and Nakhon Sawan provinces were found to have paraquat contamination.

Last April, as public debate on the issue intensified, the government formed a committee to devise possible solutions on hazardous farm chemicals. Comprising high-level officials from the Public Health Ministry, the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry, the Industry Ministry, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the committee recommended the three chemicals should be banned from farm use.

But the committee does not have the authority to implement such a ban. The responsible agency, the Department of Agriculture (DOA), which has the authority to regulate which chemicals should be allowed on farms, has simply refused to follow the recommendation. It said it would ban the chemicals only if they are classified as "hazardous" by the Industry Ministry.

The DOA even said the ban on the chemicals would result in economic losses of over 70 billion baht in the agricultural sector because farmers will not have alternative pesticides for farming. The department also renewed the listing of paraquat as one of the chemicals allowed for farm use. So, that may explain why our vegetables are chemically tainted. It is such economic-driven policy that puts toxicity into our mouths.

But there is reason for us to remain hopeful. On Feb 15, the same panel did a great service by reaffirming its stance that there should be a ban on the chemicals.

The Industry Ministry will make a decision this month on the classification of the chemicals. It remains to be seen whether it will agree with the recommendation and list the chemicals in the "hazardous" category. If so, the DOA might have no choice but impose a ban.

I hope the Industry Ministry and the DOA will make the right decision. If not, all we can do is ensure that we use enough baking soda or vinegar to clean vegetables of chemical residues as part of our routine food preparation, or that we have enough savings to pay medical bills once we have to seek treatment for chemical-related illnesses.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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