Farm chemical ban lacks support

Farm chemical ban lacks support

People who have optimistically thought the ban on toxic farm chemicals, like paraquat and chlorpyrifos, that took effect in the middle of this year should make vegetables and fruits safer to consume should think again.

The latest round of testing conducted by ThaiPAN -- a food safety advocacy group -- on samples from wet markets and modern retailers across 10 provinces, including Bangkok, showed 58.7% of the 509 fruit and vegetable samples it tested this year were tainted by toxic chemical residues; at least four were banned substances like endosulfan and sulfotep and chlorpyrifos.

Worse, the contamination is seen as widespread.

The 100% tainted samples are from locally grown vegetables which are used in popular Thai dishes. They include kale, small tomato, chilli peppers, coriander, bitter cucumber and others. Imported items like red grapes are also tainted, together with dried products like dried chilli peppers and mushrooms.

The latest findings bring into question the effectiveness of the farm chemical ban and risks to consumer health.

Much like the rest of the world, Thailand profited when the Third Agriculture Revolution (also known as -- perhaps ironically now -- the "Green Revolution") in the 1950s and 1960s brought about a tsunami of farming additives, which sole purpose was to massively boost yield.

Chemicals like endosulfan and sulfotep helped boost farmers' income and in many ways, made it possible for agro giants to gain a secure foothold in the sector. It wasn't until the industry was well addicted to the chemicals did research begin on their harmful effects on human health.

Now, in the face of irrefutable scientific evidence, calls are growing to have these chemicals banned for good. Campaigning for farm chemical bans has never been easy, as attested in the case of chlorpyrifos and paraquat, a target of advocacy networks together with glyphosate.

But heavy lobbying of agro giants that have enormous influence on officials at the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry resulted in several delays while the ministry was at odds with other state agencies like the Public Health Ministry.

The ban on chlorpyrifos and paraquat was enforced on June 1 while the government made a U-turn on glyphosate.

With ThaiPAN's new findings, the Agriculture and Cooperative Ministry owes the public an explanation for why residues are still traced in so many products.

Yet the new findings, albeit disappointing, are hardly a surprise. The Foundation for Consumers found traces of paraquat in food samples from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Phayao and Phrae during an inspection earlier this year. ThaiPAN's findings confirmed what everyone has already suspected -- the ban failed because no one is taking the threat seriously.

The lack of enforcement reflects the government's ignorance, not just towards scientific facts, but also market demand. The demand for organically grown products is increasing everywhere. In Thailand, it is especially interesting to note that consumer demand for such products is on the rise despite the slowing economic growth.

Data from the Global Organic Guide shows that demand for organic products -- which come at a premium -- grew by an average of 8% year on year before the pandemic, and this figure is expected to rise as quickly-ageing members of society become more aware of health issues.

While a shift to organic farming is admittedly too big a jump to make, it was made even more unfeasible by the pandemic-induced economic slump. The Guide's projection shows that there is also an increasing demand for generally healthier, but not necessarily organic products.

By sticking to its words and enforcing the ban on the toxic agricultural additives, not only will the government be acting in the best interest of the public but it will also allow Thai products to penetrate and remain in more markets.

Taiwan's recent decision to send back a five-tonne shipment of a brand-name tea mix after it was found to have contained higher-than-permitted levels of the insecticide fipronil should remind businesses that times have changed.

The government must also remember that many of its trade partners demand stricter controls when it comes to food items, and even trace amounts of toxic residues will leave a bitter taste that's sure to ruin the product's, if not Thailand's, reputation abroad.

Plus, it must consider the long-term fallout from its reluctance to enforce the ban.

Without a doubt, it will affect Thailand's hopes to become Southeast Asia's medical hub as well as the "Kitchen of the World" -- after all, can a country that allows the continued poisoning of its citizens ever achieve such a status?


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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