Stand firm on farm toxin ban
In what appears to be a last-ditch effort to have a ban on three extremely toxic chemicals, namely paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos, revoked, the Agriculture Department has launched an online "hearing" process asking members of the public whether they agree or disagree with the ban. This should not be.
The 14-day online process started on Oct 24, two days after the National Committee on Hazardous Substances, chaired by the Industry Ministry permanent secretary, slapped a ban on the three chemicals amid social pressure. The prohibition is set to take effect on Dec 1.
Pro-chemical farmers are expected to participate in the online hearing with hopes of having the ban reversed. When the department arranged for the registration of farm chemical use, with training for farmers in "appropriate application", a few months ago, it was reported that more than half a million farmers signed up to the programme, funded by the Department of Agriculture despite strong criticism. The public questioned why the state was using tax money for a programme that promoted any kind of use of these farm chemicals.
Previously the committee, comprising various state agencies including the agriculture, industry, and health ministries, had voted in support of the chemicals until Deputy Agriculture Minister Mananya Thaiset kicked off a campaign calling for a ban. This triggered public awareness of the dangers of the agrochemicals, and the committee subsequently voted to reclassify the trio from Type 3 toxic substances to Type 4, prohibiting their production, import, export or possession.
Farm chemical supporters called on the Administrative Court to suspend the ban, which they said would significantly affect their crop production as other chemicals with the same effect are "more expensive". But they were disappointed when the court threw out their petition on Nov 1. According to local media reports, two former chiefs of the agriculture department, namely Adisak Srisanpakit and Anant Dalodom, turned up at the court hearing to voice their support for use of the chemicals.
While the online process allows the public to endorse the ban, there is speculation that the main aim is to gather votes from the proponents of the toxic farm chemicals. There are reports that if the "No" votes exceed those in favour of the ban, the results will be forwarded to the NCHS to support a possible U-turn.
In a separate media report, Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit said he may seek a review of the Oct 22 decision, especially regarding the herbicide glyphosate. He cited an Oct 18 letter from Washington, received via the US Embassy, asking PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and related cabinet ministers to delay the ban, particularly on glyphosate, which is widely used by US farmers.
The letter was signed by Ted McKinney, under-secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, and claimed the ban on glyphosate would "severely impact Thailand's import of agricultural commodities, such as soybean and wheat", which account for more than 73.2 billion baht.
Mr Suriya softened his stance, saying: "We may consider maintaining the ban on paraquat but allowing the use of glyphosate." Mr Suriya, as chair of the NCHS, said he planned to table the proposed review at its next meeting. He did not mention a date for the meeting.
The adoption of an online opinion poll to decide such a matter merits condemnation.
It's true the chemicals are popular among farmers as the country imports large volumes of the toxic trio each year. It's now more likely that the pro-farm chemicals group, with heavy lobbying from agrochemical giants, may overcome opposition to the chemicals -- especially given the fact that few people are aware of the hearing.
By law, the three chemicals are allowed in six types of plantations, namely sugarcane, cassava, oil palm, corn, rubber and fruit. Yet, in practice, the farmers often use them more widely as there is no strong enforcement of the law by state authorities. Despite restrictions, the chemicals are applied to other types of plants and also in watershed areas. Such indiscriminate use has put water sources at risk of chemical contamination. Food safety activists have complained about chemical residue on samples of vegetables, while academics and health officials said traces of these chemicals have entered the food chain and, in certain cases, have been passed from mothers to babies.
Any attempts to revoke the ban are unjustified given the fact that contamination has now reached crisis level. Cases of farmers getting sick from chemical poisoning are legion and place a heavy burden on the country's health budget.
Mr Suriya, as chair of the NCHS, should stand by the ban and seek cooperation from state agencies to enable farmers to adapt to safer production methods. Prolonging the use of these toxic chemicals puts the health of both farmers and consumers at risk and also damages the environment.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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