Our chemical-free future

Our chemical-free future

When I think of my grandmother, I always think of her in the kitchen. Growing up as the happy recipient of her home-cooked meals, I sometimes would join her there as she passed along tidbits of her cooking wisdom.

One thing that always struck me was her uncompromising and tedious vegetable washing routine. Every morning, she would surround herself with large soaking bowls and colanders, filling them with various vegetables that she would wash using salt, then vinegar. Then she would let them drain and repeat the process several times.

This ritual could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours depending on her menu plans, and whether any of the veggies made her "dirty dozen list" of the most contaminated produce.

My own love of fresh produce owes a lot to my mother, who has been a vegetarian for close to three decades. Our dining table is always filled with vegetable dishes. Because pesticide and herbicide contamination is so widespread, we usually select organic produce despite the higher cost.

Imagine my dismay, then, when the Thailand Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-Pan) reported late last year that 64% of the 13 vegetable and fruit varieties it tested in Bangkok were not safe to eat as they contained toxic chemicals that exceed the maximum residue limit. Even some produce labelled "organic" and sold in upscale grocery stores could be suspect, it said.

One of the chemicals that topped the list was the weed-killer paraquat, found in 38% of samples. It is the subject of growing calls for a global ban but remains in widespread use, especially in developing countries, because of its affordability and efficacy.

Numerous studies have shown that paraquat is highly toxic in animals and humans, with links to liver, kidney, heart and respiratory diseases. Long-term exposure can cause incurable brain conditions such as Parkinson's disease and dementia.

So potent is direct exposure to paraquat that a small sip can be fatal. This became a serious problem in South Korea where it was being used by people to commit suicide. That was the tipping point that led the Seoul government to ban the chemical in 2011.

Within five years after the ban, the death rate by suicide dropped by nearly 15%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and pesticide-caused suicides alone decreased by 46%.

The European Union initiated a ban on paraquat in 2007 and the United States has restricted its use to licensed technicians since 2012. Fifty-one countries have now banned the chemical and Vietnam is expected to join the list soon.

Even in China, which manufactures about 80% of the paraquat used worldwide, its use and sale are to be banned entirely by 2020. Putting the health of its people first, the government made the decision knowing that it would hurt an industry already facing falling demand from importers.

A ban is probably still a long way off in Thailand, given the systemic challenges and conflicts of interest involving big fish that benefit enormously from importing this deadly chemical.

There was a glimmer of hope recently when the government-appointed national reform committee on public health backed a ban on three widely used agri-chemicals: paraquat, chlorpyrifos and glyphosate.

But before you celebrate, keep in mind that the Public Health Ministry and four other ministries tried but failed to impose a ban on the farm chemicals last year. The Hazardous Substance Committee, an Industry Ministry body that deals with such matters, declared in May that the contamination and health effects from such chemicals were not significant enough to merit a ban.

This shameful and regressive move paved the way for the Department of Agriculture to renew usage permits for farmers and for conglomerates to enjoy the margins from their imports.

A final decision on the ban is scheduled for next month, but eliminating these three chemicals should be only the start of Thailand's journey towards pesticide- and herbicide-free agricultural practices. Images of farmers wearing thin clothes, rudimentary cotton or paper masks and substandard eye protection while spraying farm chemicals should be a thing of the past.

Biotechnology and innovative agricultural processing are part of the much-hyped Thailand 4.0 initiative. What possible role could toxic chemicals have in this hopeful new economic model?

A cleaner approach is not only better for farmers and consumers in terms of health, it is also economically viable with improved crop yields, and lower healthcare costs due to reductions in chronic diseases and deaths.

Tanyatorn Tongwaranan

Asia Focus Writer

Asia Focus Writer

Email : tanyatornt@bangkokpost.co.th

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