Striving for safer food

Striving for safer food

A gruelling campaign by food safety advocates to have two extremely toxic farm chemicals banned has finally borne fruit. The ban on chlorpyrifos and paraquat, which was announced in the Royal Gazette, took effect yesterday.

After several U-turns, the Ministry of Industry finally placed chlorpyrifos and paraquat on the list of hazardous chemicals on May 15, meaning they are now illegal. The ministry, which chairs the national panel on toxic substances, had previously dropped another toxic farm chemical, glyphosate, from the prohibition list, amid what appeared to be pressure from Washington.

But as Prokchol Usap, a food advocate noted, the June 1 ban is still a far cry from success, as it is "just a move in the right direction". She is right, as the processes that lie ahead are complicated. Farmers have been ordered to hand in the substances in their possession to manufacturers or importers, which are then obliged to destroy them within 270 days of the announcement.

Proponents of the chemicals are doing what they can to have the ban revoked by claiming they will suffer from lower yields and increased production costs -- with little regard to the cost in terms of health and the environment. A group of farmers has even asked for an injunction from the Administrative Court.

Thai farmers are heavily dependent on the toxic farm chemicals, which were allowed for use on six different cash crops, namely rubber, oil palm, sugarcane, cassava, corn and tropical fruits. And due to the use of commercial tactics by agro-giants and tacit support from some officials at the Agriculture Department, many farmers are strongly advocating for conventional farming methods.

It is likely that these farmers will push for the ban to be revoked, and proponents of the chemicals -- both within the administration and among the agro-giants -- will make the path towards safer, more sustainable farming a bumpy one. One possible tactic that they may have up their sleeve is to make the upcoming processes (including destruction of stockpiles and compensation) excessively costly.

We must also remember that the ban alone will not guarantee food safety, as it will fail if it pushes farmers towards other dangerous herbicides and pesticides.

As such, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government should be proactive in supporting officials tasked with promoting alternative farming techniques to farmers. An increase in production costs isn't a loss if it ultimately means better health and jobs for farm labourers.

The government also needs to review areas which have been allocated for the planting of certain cash crops -- notably, sugarcane and corn -- which may be contributing to the toxic haze problem. This plan requires strategic planning and subsidies.

The government, in particular the Agriculture Ministry, should also encourage cooperatives and/or community groups to invest in machinery which would otherwise be out of the reach of the average farmer, so everyone has access to sustainable farming techniques. District- or tambon-level demonstration centres where farmers can learn about alternative farming should be set up.

The downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has seen plenty of people head to their hometowns after they were laid off from their jobs. Sustainable farming can offer a chance to turn things around and contribute to strengthening the country's food production network. It would also complete Thailand's aspiration to be the "kitchen of the world", with not only delicious, but also safe food.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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