Chemical ban opponents led by misinformation

Chemical ban opponents led by misinformation

By the end of today, an online "hearing" process initiated by the Department of Agriculture over whether the ban on three extremely toxic chemicals -- paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos -- should be lifted will have come to an end. The results are expected to be released shortly after the hearings are over, especially if those who vote against the ban emerge as the winners.

It does not require any scientific theorising to realise that the department, in launching the 15-day hearings, must be hopeful that it will be able to use the outcome to pressure the National Committee on Hazardous Substances to revoke the ban it issued on Oct 22. The prohibition is due to take effect on Dec 1.

Needless to say, the agency which is known for its long-time support of the chemicals, must be pinning its hopes for victory on the pro-chemical groups.

Last July, when public sentiment against the chemicals started running high, the department kicked off a registration system and training programme for farmers to "ensure they know how to correctly apply the substances and stay safe".

Over half a million farmers subsequently registered for the programme.

So, they must be hopeful that those working on conventional farms could force change, as the department said that if the number of votes against the ban is higher, the Oct 22 ban, which is expected to affect 1.7 million farmers and farm workers, could go down the drain.

However, the hearing is illegitimate for a few reasons.

To begin with, the process seems closed, as if those hosting the debate want it to be a forum for the proponents while the public at large remains unaware of what's going on. This strongly suggests a lack of transparency.

More importantly, the public must be aware that the numbers game -- a "yes or no" referendum-like process -- cannot be applied to every issue.

A decision on the issues of importance must be based on reason, not on a majority who can be misled.

Those who want to stick to the numbers should look at how winning with a majority can create a big headache, as seen in the case of Brexit.

I say this because I am aware of how easy it is to blind people with misinformation. I don't blame them.

They are victims of multi-million-baht advertising campaigns, while the state is too weak (or corrupt), and wants all these dangerous products to remain on the shelves.

This may explain why the state -- the Department of Agriculture in particular -- lent its support to having the ban reversed, rather than preparing farmers for a new era of safer agriculture, or helping them shift to alternative farming methods.

Some may think the shift is unrealistic or Utopian.

Many people insist that the chemicals are cheap and efficient and that they reduce the need for labour while killing weeds and pests within a very short space of time.

By prohibiting the use of these chemicals, they complain that their production costs will rise and that their plantations might collapse.

But they seem to forget that the chemicals have high costs, when taking into consideration the impact on people's health in the long run and the cost of healthcare, not to mention the toll on the environment.

We cannot blame them, however, as they have only been fed one-sided information for decades to make them believe that those chemicals "work like magic".

It will not be an easy task to maintain the ban, considering the huge financial interests on the part of the agricultural firms, and the mindset of our farmers.

A farm owner I know complained that his plan to go organic has been riddled with difficulties.

The workers he hired to tend his plantation in Chiang Rai all asked for Grammoxone, the commercial name of paraquat.

They were upset when the farm owner did not listen to their demand.

The farm owner said he doesn't understand why those workers don't care about their own health.

In this case, don't underestimate the influence of aggressive advertisements, with the state helping to promote such a dangerous farming system, both directly and indirectly through the ongoing so-called "hearing".

The officials just don't seem to realise that their job is to help the farmers adapt to a safer farming system, which is possible with the use of farm machines and environmentally sound farming methods.

So don't be surprised if the situation becomes tense or chaotic within the next few weeks, as the conventional farmers and agricultural giants will be pushing hard for a reversal of the ban, while state officials lose their focus in a dirty game.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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