Chemical drama shows it's time for agency detox

Chemical drama shows it's time for agency detox

I won't give a lengthy introduction to paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos. The latest row on whether or not to ban these chemicals from Thai farms has given the public more than enough of an understanding of their harmful effects on human health.

Difficulties which have beset efforts to have them banned show how much some stakeholders in the agricultural sector, as well as policymakers within our state bureaucracy, are resisting change. Instead, they are making policy decisions based on economic benefits, not the public's health.

Indeed, there are a number of aspects of governance which could benefit from a little "detox" -- namely our decision-making process, as well as the overall bureaucratic structure that governs the use of these chemicals.

The first element that needs to be reckoned with immediately is the Department of Agriculture (DoA), an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives that has not played a constructive role in the debate.

While consumer networks, conservationists and public health experts have tirelessly advocated for a ban on the toxic trio, the DoA is actually siding with some farming groups and chemical producers who prefer restrictions over an outright ban.

Tasked primarily to help farmers to gain access to technology and innovation, the DoA introduced some of these chemicals in the past to help farmers improve their yields. It was, and still is responsible for the provision of information -- including the benefits and downsides -- of the use of such chemicals to decision-makers.

Yet today, the agency has become the subject of intense criticism. Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister, Mananya Thaiset, who oversees the DoA and has been pushing for a total ban, has repeatedly criticised the agency for its foot-dragging and the lack of cooperation when she asked for pertinent information relating to the chemicals, such as stock levels within Thailand.

The DoA has also been accused by a network of 668 consumer groups of dubiously citing the names of 17,527 pro-chemical farmers and traders in its recent "public hearing report", which concluded that the majority of people disagreed with the chemicals ban.

Quick and resolute in its support of the chemicals, DoA has not even come up with any environmentally friendly alternatives, even though it was instructed to find other options more than two and a half years ago by the previous government.

Another troublesome element is the National Hazardous Substances Committee (NHSC), under the Industry Ministry. Empowered to make decisions on the use of the chemicals, the NHSC is increasingly turning into a problem itself.

Last week, it backtracked on the decision made by its members on Oct 22 to ban the three chemicals by Dec 1. Instead, it moved to limit the use of glyphosate and delayed the ban on paraquat and chlorpyrifos. It is now facing the prospect of legal action from consumer networks, which have accused it of breaking its own regulation.

The NHSC's structure and record cast doubt on its ability to decide on complex issues, such as this ban. Can it look beyond economics? The concerns are compounded by reports of representatives from chemical firms sitting on the committee. Its own member, Assc Prof Jiraporn Limpananont, resigned last week in protest at the decision.

So how do we flush out these negative chi?

Several recommendations have been made, but the most practical one came from the Lower House's sub-committee on farm chemical controls last month, which suggested that the NHSC be separated into two bodies. The first would be tasked with deciding which chemicals can be used in industries, while the other would specifically decide which chemicals can be used on Thai farms and study their effects on human health and the environment.

It is about time that the government restructured the DoA. Its job of finding alternatives to these chemicals should be re-assigned to another agency -- if possible, a national committee -- tasked with overseeing food safety and organic farming.

Structural changes can take years to complete. So, the Lower House should step in and set up a national ad hoc committee that represents all real stakeholders, to ensure decisions on the three chemicals are made properly and transparently without bias. The panel should also oversee state bodies, such as DoA, to ensure they work for the benefit of the public. Additionally, it should appoint a fact-finding committee to study the impacts of the ban to make sure we have the correct information.

We cannot put the task in the same old hands and expect a different outcome. These agencies have been given plenty of time and all that has been proven is their incompetence.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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