Breaking a toxic deadlock
Despite controlling the Department of Agriculture, Mananya Thaiset has struggled to make headway in her mission to ban the three toxic farm chemicals -- paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos. Frustrating the deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister's efforts are influential mandarins in the department who are refusing to cooperate.
Ms Mananya has made banning the chemicals, which pose serious health risks to humans, her top policy aim. Early last week, she asked top officials at the department to do her a simple favour -- provide her with data on the current quantity of the chemicals stockpiled nationwide. The request met with silence.
If they refuse to follow her order, they better try to have her replaced by someone else, she told the officials, according to her statement to media last week. She then inspected the department's offices herself to inspect the chemical stocks.
Ms Mananya's troubling start at the department speaks volumes about a key obstacle that has stifled growing demands for a ban on the toxic substances for years, namely the stubbornness of top bureaucrats at both the Agriculture and Industry ministries. Together with their peers from the Public Health Ministry, they sit on the influential National Hazardous Substances Committee that has so far refused to put an end to the import, sale and use of the three chemicals.
For years, state officials sitting on the committee have reportedly been at odds with one another over the proposed ban. The Health Ministry supports the ban, while the Industry and Agriculture ministries have insisted it is inappropriate since farmers depend heavily on the substances.
The majority of officials sitting on the committee are under suspicion of links with agro giants who stand to lose vast revenues if the chemicals are banned. Adding weight to that suspicion is that there is no good reason for state agencies to avoid making farms and agricultural produce safer for everyone by outlawing the toxic sprays.
Academics and activists have long called for a ban on the three chemicals, which are popular among farmers who plant six major commercial crops -- corn, cassava, sugarcane, rubber, oil palm and fruit. Paraquat has drawn most concern, having already been banned by more than 50 countries.
There is scientific evidence to indicate that the three chemicals contaminate Thai produce at unsafe levels. Residues of the chemicals have entered the food chain and harmed the environment. As a result, they pose serious health risks not only to farmers who use them but also to consumers. Earlier this year, Chulalongkorn Hospital doctor Thiravat Hemachudha revealed that provincial hospitals continue to see cases of farmers suffering serious illness from use of the chemicals.
However, Ms Mananya is no longer fighting alone. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit recently pledged their support for a ban.
Meanwhile, yesterday a Lower House committee led by the opposition resolved to push ahead to outlaw the three chemicals. In the past, the National Hazardous Substances Committee refused to reveal which members had voted for and which against proposed bans. This time, Ms Mananya has vowed to make the votes public and force naysayers to declare their reasons.
It is encouraging that Ms Mananya has located the root of the problem and demonstrated willingness to break the deadlock. Tackling this long-standing issue requires political muscle to keep those mandarins accountable.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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