Huge banners declaring support for a total ban of herbicides paraquat and glyphosate and pesticide chlorpyrifos have recently been erected at many state-run provincial hospitals, in what appears to be an escalated campaign by the Ministry of Public Health to warn people of the danger posed by the three toxic substances widely used among Thai farmers to kill weeds and insects.
They also serve to warn the National Hazardous Substances Committee, the guardian of the three weed and pest killers, that this will be the final war and supporters of the ban will not go back empty-handed and will no longer tolerate letting the majority of the 29 committee members dictate the fate of Thais.
Our once fertile land, streams and rivers have been poisoned by these toxic substances for too long.
Fish and frogs in natural waterways, and fruits and vegetables have been contaminated after the chemicals entered the food chain.
The number of the poor farmers who were over-exposed to paraquat who reported sick and who died are increasing.
According to the National Health Security Office (NHSO), 3,067 people sought medical treatment under the gold card universal health scheme for the first 10 months of this year and, of these, 407 died. In 2017, there were 579 fatalities out of 4,916 who reported sick to the NHSO.
Research reports about the harmful health impacts of the three toxic substances have been documented by Mahidol, Naresuan and Chulalongkorn universities, to name just a few.
But they have all been ignored by the National Hazardous Substances Committee as inadequate or unsubstantiated scientifically, merely because a majority of committee members appear to have the interest of business stakeholders at heart rather than those of the public. Never mind the farmers, consumers or the NGOs.
Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Mananya Thaiset have made clear their stand for a total ban of the substances by the end of this year. Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit was also reportedly in support of a ban.
That leaves Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister and Democrat secretary-general Chalermchai Sri-on as the only one still sitting on the fence. He says he supports the ban and will sign in approval of the ban if the National Hazardous Substances Committee decides so.
How pathetic and ignorant this is. One may wonder whether Minister Chalermchai has been living in his twilight zone that he is totally blind to the stand of the committee -- which is to restrict the use of the three substances until alternative chemicals which are affordable by farmers can be found.
This shallow argument is nothing but a tactic to prolong the use of the substances at the expense of the people's health.
Have Mr Chalermchai and the committee ever spent a few minutes thinking sanely whether it is weird that Switzerland banned the use of paraquat, manufactured by the Swiss company, Syncenta, under the tradename of Gramoxone and why China, a major producer and exporter of paraquat, has decided to ban the substance as of September 2020. Malaysia too has decided to ban the substance as of Jan 1st next year.
Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Salahuddin Ayub of Malaysia said in March that there are two alternative herbicides which are more environmentally friendly, but they take 2-3 days to show effect, unlike paraquat which has immediate effect.
The fact these countries banned or are about to ban paraquat is because they placed the safety of their people as top priority.
It is a different story in Thailand where every government in the past many years until now put economic interests and the benefit of the chemical industry ahead of public safety.
See what the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry is doing now to implement the committee's proposal to restrict the use of the three substances?
The Department of Agriculture has been providing training to farmers on how to properly and safely handle the spraying of weed killers.
The question is what the officials of the department have been doing all these years and why the training now? This speaks volume of the utter inefficiency of the department and the waste of taxpayers' money needed to keep it.
It is also unbelievable that officials of the department or the committee members have no idea about alternative chemicals. Vietnam, which has already banned paraquat, remains a big rice producer and exporter.
The committee's proposal to restrict the use of the three farm substances is shameful and unacceptable because it shows the committee has no regard whatsoever for the safety of the consumers and, particularly, farmers who use the substances.
As far as Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Chalermchai is concerned, he can choose to stand by the people or side with his bureaucrats and the committee and face the public backlash for, this time around, we the people will not be held hostage by the committee and the bureaucrats.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.