Toxic chemicals row back to square one
Last week, the National Hazardous Substances Committee (NHSC) left many people baffled when it did a U-turn and decided to halt the ban on the herbicide glyphosate and delay the one on the herbicide paraquat and pesticide chlorpyrifos.
About a month ago, this very same panel had declared it was banning all three chemicals from Dec 1, a decision that was met with much applause from activists and consumer groups and fierce opposition from the agriculture industry.
However, it should be noted that different decisions were made by different members of the same panel. The NHSC's structure was changed, with some government agencies seeing their representation in the panel removed and replaced by other agencies.
This structural change was required by the new Hazardous Substances Act, which came into effect a few days after the panel's original members decided to ban the chemicals.
The new version of the panel is being led by Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkij from the Palang Pracharath Party.
Before attending his first NHSC meeting last Wednesday, Mr Suriya told reporters that he had no plans to make changes to the resolution, though he raised concerns about the impact this ban would have on farmers. He was worried that farmers may not be able to change their farming practices in time.
Yet, the last panel meeting he chaired eventually ended up backtracking on the previous decision. This did not come as a surprise though. It is just a reflection on Thailand's style of policy-making -- policies are reversed as soon as there are changes in state panels or the government.
Following the meeting, Mr Suriya told the press that the new panel members had "unanimously" resolved to limit the use of glyphosate instead of banning it, while the ban on paraquat and chlorpyrifos would be delayed by six months. He said this was being done so the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry can come up with alternatives.
Soon after, some health experts serving in the panel fired back, saying Mr Suriya did not call for a vote on the new resolution, even though he has insisted that the decision was made legally and that most members had agreed to it.
No matter what happened behind the scenes, this new decision by the panel appears to chime well with calls from some farmers' groups and farm chemicals suppliers, who claim the ban will reduce crop yields and increase the cost of production.
Besides, it also appears to be in line with the United States' call in October for the government to refrain from banning glyphosate, and its insistence the ban would have an impact on trade between the two countries.
The conflict the committee's latest decision has generated means debate on the issue is back at square one. Over the past seven years, there have been intense arguments about the risks the three chemicals pose to human health and calls for them to be banned.
Two years ago, the junta-led government initiated a process that would have led to the chemicals being prohibited, with the Public Health Ministry taking a positive step by setting up a panel to study the health impacts caused by the chemicals. The panel's study revealed that many people, particularly farmers, suffered severe ailments that were linked to their exposure to these chemicals.
However, instead of wasting so much time debating this issue, some progress should have been made on coming up with a more detailed scientific and objective study of the chemicals' impact for public interest. The government and other stakeholders should have, by now, come up with measures to help farmers adapt to chemical-free farming practices. And there should have been non-hazardous alternatives to the chemicals that were offered to farmers.
However, every time a ban was proposed, the debate returned to the same old argument: Are the chemicals harmful to human health? Are there any back-up plans if the ban is to be imposed? And the debate usually came to the same end -- the proposed ban being delayed without a clear road map or a time frame on when it will be imposed.
The NHSC's backtracking speaks volumes about Thailand's problems with making policies on issues that are linked to different stakeholders and the profits of business giants.
This problem relates to the lack of principles among government agencies, especially on this issue. If they considered food safety and environment health a prime concern, they should have been stronger with their decision to ban the chemicals. Without a strong foundation in these principles, they only "promised" pressure groups that a ban will be imposed.
At this point, the only way out I can see is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his policy advisers intervening and coming up with a clear policy directive that the three chemicals be banned. This will also fulfil his promise to push for "immediate" reduction and eventual banning of the chemicals. This declaration was part of his government's policy statement presented to parliament in July.
Yet, so far, he appears to be indifferent to the subject and is letting his ministers make decisions based on their preferences. If things continue going on like this, the ban on the chemicals will continue being dragged out in a bid to buy time.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.