Stand firm against US on toxins

Stand firm against US on toxins

After the National Hazardous Substances Committee (NHSC) voted last Tuesday to ban three toxic farm chemicals -- glyphosate, paraquat and chlorpyrifos -- starting Dec 1, many expected there would be resistance from the agriculture industry which profits heavily from the trio.

Resistance did come, but it was from the US government.

On Friday, Thai media reported on a leaked letter from Washington submitted via the US embassy on Oct 18 addressing PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and nine other cabinet ministers requesting them to delay the ban -- particularly on glyphosate.

The letter was signed by Ted McKinney, under secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, saying the ban on glyphosate would "severely impact Thailand's import of agricultural commodities such as soybean and wheat".

Citing the US Environmental Protection Agency's human risk assessment on glyphosate, the letter says the chemical "poses no meaningful risk to human health when used as authorised". The PM and his team have been invited to discuss the matter in Washington.

Following the media reports, some of the ministers admitted they had received a copy of the letter. Gen Prayut himself said he would assign officials to explain Thailand's position to the US embassy.

I believe the US authority has the right to express their view and raise its concern, but with their submission of the letter coming four days ahead of the NHSC's meeting to vote for the ban, the question is whether the US attempted to influence the committee's decision.

Why did the US decide to do it this way? Voting on the issue is an internal matter of the Thai government regarding the health and livelihoods of local farmers and consumers.

The US opposition may stem from that fact that the ban will also affect imports of farm produce contaminated with the chemicals. At present, Thailand imports about 73.2 billion baht worth of US agricultural produce each year. Given that glyphosate is still widely used in the US, the ban will likely have an adverse impact on the US's benefits from trade with Thailand.

BioThai, a local NGO advocating the ban, suspects there is a conflict of interest on part of Mr McKinney who worked in the agrochemical industry for nearly two decades.

The McKinney letter also implies Thailand's decision to ban the chemicals is not based on "scientific" evidence. This seems unreasonable given that thousands of lawsuits related to alleged harm caused by the agrochemical have been filed across the country.

In August, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay a former school groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, US$289 million in compensation after he claimed the company's glyphosate-based herbicide marketed under the name Roundup gave him cancer.

The court determined that the herbicide had caused Mr Johnson's Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the company failed to warn him of the health impact from exposure.

In Thailand, evidence from the field indicates that our agriculture sector's dependency on the chemicals for decades has resulted in environmental degradation and harm to people's health.

Records from the National Health Security Office, an agency which runs the Universal Healthcare Coverage scheme, show that 14,528 people received treatment at hospitals between 2016 to 2018 after being exposed to pesticides, one third of which were directly attributed to exposure to herbicides and fungicides. The exposure resulted in 1,786 deaths, one third of which were directly attributed to exposure to herbicides and fungicides.

Each year, the government spends around 20 million baht to treat these patients. Their sickness or death also means an economic loss from a decline in their farm productivity and income.

The figures do not include patients who may have sought similar treatment but were covered by other healthcare schemes. So it's likely that the total number of people affected by pesticides could higher.

On the consumer side, Thai-PAN, an NGO campaigning for food safety, conducted blood tests on 612 random visitors to the Herb and Food Fair held at Impact Muang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi in Sep last year.

The tests showed 62% had levels of pesticides categorised as risky to health in their blood, while 19% had "harmful" levels present. These results suggest pesticides have widely and uncontrollably contaminated everyday agricultural products.

The US has clearly made a bad move in opposing the ban at a time when the food safety movement has gained momentum among farmers, consumers and the public.

Fortunately, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Mananya Thaiset, who pushed for the ban, have recently shown their opposition to the US request, insisting that they did the right thing. They deserve praise.

The ban must not be averted, notwithstanding the US pressure. At the same time, the government should work with the private sector to help farmers make a transition from chemical-based to organic farming.

This is another big step towards gearing Thailand up for a safe and sustainable food future.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.


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