Sugarcane leaves a bitter aftertaste

Sugarcane leaves a bitter aftertaste

Fires started during sugarcane-harvesting season to clear land for the next crop have become a major environmental problem as more land has been set aside for cultivation. (Photo courtesy of community-support agriculture group)
Fires started during sugarcane-harvesting season to clear land for the next crop have become a major environmental problem as more land has been set aside for cultivation. (Photo courtesy of community-support agriculture group)

Two of the country's major environmental problems -- PM2.5 ultrafine dust and toxic contamination -- stem largely from sugarcane farming, which ironically receives a big chunk of state subsidies.

One could ask whether this is a misguided policy.

Sugarcane, like maize, yields little profit for farmers, compared to other types of farming.

According to a 2013 study by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, farmers earned a net profit of only 1,381 and 1,494 baht per rai (equivalent to 1,600 sq m) respectively from sugarcane and maize cultivation. They could have earned 3,567-7,337 baht from four other types of farming; napier grass for biogas, tilapia, cow-fed grass, and integrated farming.

But for some reason, sugarcane and maize-based animal feed industries appear to have influence over our policymakers.

The Public Private Partnership (PPP), initiated by the military regime, welcomed representatives from the sugarcane industry to sit on a committee tasked with agricultural reform.

This cooperation, dubbed "Pracharath sugarcane", has evolved into a national policy to support cane farmers.

Apart from a financial incentive given to new sugarcane farmers, large-scale sugarcane farms can obtain loans with an interest rate as low as 0.01%. As a result, sugarcane farming in Thailand expanded by around three million rai between 2014 and 2019.

The increase in sugarcane cultivation, in which farmers typically practice open burning, has caused the PM2.5 crisis in the Central and Eastern regions. Open burning was found in 61% of sugarcane planting areas as farmers believe it's quick and convenient.

Unfortunately, this has greatly affected people's health, with biomass power plant offshoots in the sugar industry causing environmental problems among surrounding communities.

But the Thai government doesn't seem to see the damage and has continued to subsidise the sugarcane industry.

To make matters worse, Thais have been paying high prices for sugar. To keep the industry stable, subsidised prices are high even though sugar prices on the world market have dropped. State support for the sugar industry has angered rivals in Brazil and Australia, as the subsidies have distorted world market prices.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a new challenge for the sugarcane industry has emerged. The stay-at-home measures have resulted in a dramatic drop in oil consumption, resulting in decreased demand for sugarcane, especially in Brazil where the crop has been used to produce ethanol petrol.

The plunge in sugarcane prices on the global market, 24.6% in one month, has heavily impacted Thailand's policy over the last few years to encourage an expansion of sugarcane cultivation.

Now farmers and the industry as a whole want to use the unfavourable prices as an excuse to postpone the ban on paraquat, a popular herbicide for this type of crop, which was due to take effect on June 1. They have pressured the government to postpone the ban to the end of 2020.

However, the industry's claim that the paraquat ban will cut yields by half and cause 150 billion baht in damages is sheer exaggeration.

The problem actually lies in the perversity of mass production that results in farmers earning peanuts.

If we want to boost prices, it's necessary to scale back cultivation. Instead of doing that, the state has provided a large amount of funding to support the industry.

Such financial support is a burden on consumers who have to pay more for sugar. This is going on while the deteriorating effect on farmers and impacts on the environment have never been taken into account.

The state has ignored other environmentally friendly options. According to an in-house study in 2012 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, the use of farm machinery will help farmers get rid of weeds effectively, with no impacts on health.

The study reaffirmed an earlier one conducted in 2008, that said paraquat is the least efficient solution to sugar cane yield, compared to other chemicals.

If a more efficient solution is available, the claim that the paraquat ban has adversely affected cane yields is groundless.

The sugar cane industry is shamelessly using the pandemic as an unjustifiable excuse to have the chemical ban postponed while ignoring the fact that paraquat has been prohibited in almost 60 countries around the world.

Instead of allowing the use of paraquat and other toxic chemicals, we should turn this crisis into an opportunity now that millions are unemployed due to strict measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

These people can be farm labour, while job opportunities in manual pest control should be supported. Sugarcane plantations should change to other kinds of crops that better serve food security principles.

Most importantly, harvests should aim for local consumption, rather than exports.

The state policy to support investors, while overlooking health and environmental issues, and leaving small farmers in the cold could see the "Pracharath" sugar industry crumble, and if that happens, it may trigger the downfall of the government.

Witoon Lianchamroon is the director of Biothai, a non-profit organisation advocating for food security.

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