How to make agriculture sustainable

How to make agriculture sustainable

A poultry farmer collects eggs at a poultry farm in Suphan Buri province, before officials round up chickens to be destroyed to contain bird flu, in this January 2004 photo. (Photo: Reuters)
A poultry farmer collects eggs at a poultry farm in Suphan Buri province, before officials round up chickens to be destroyed to contain bird flu, in this January 2004 photo. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand's agricultural sector is often considered the backbone of the economy. As the producer of most of the food for the population, the sector provides around 30% of employment for Thais.

According to the World Bank's statistics, the revenue from this sector contributed around 8% of national GDP in the year 2020.

However, with animal protein production accounting for about a third, transforming the way Thailand produces food could increase the value of the sector and improve the livelihoods of farmers whilst decreasing the impact on the environment.

Politically, this transformation would enable Thailand to demonstrate leadership in sustainability before it hosts the next Apec Summit, by further aligning its actions with its vision of bringing the "Bio-Circular-Green" (BCG) economic model into practice.

Running out of options

The agriculture sector is the world second largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for over 14% of total GHG emissions; animal-sourced food production represents over 60% of total food-related emissions.

According to the Global Nutrition Report 2021, poultry and dairy products release about 10 times the emissions of plant-based foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

Through slash-and-burn agricultural practices, producing feed for livestock has a detrimental impact on air quality, in the North as well as in neighbouring countries.

Furthermore, monoculture agricultural practices, such as the production maize for animal feed and the use of chemical fertiliser, also leads to land deterioration and decreased soil fertility.

The way animals are kept and reared also makes for an animal welfare disaster. Animals in factory farms are locked up in cages, mutilated, and deprived of expressing their natural behaviour.

Antibiotics are routinely administered to these animals to prevent possible diseases that may flourish due to the unnatural conditions these animals are kept in, or speed their growth for profit. As a result, genes that are antibiotic-resistant have been found in waterways discharged by downstream factory farms.

Globally, the livestock sector is considered one of the main drivers of zoonotic diseases. Thus, increasing poultry production is a problematic issue.

Thailand is the fourth-largest poultry exporter in the world. The devastating avian flu outbreak in 2004 resulted in losses amounting to 96 billion baht. While stronger biosecurity measures are often seen as solutions, evidence shows that stressful, crowded livestock conditions drive the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. If no action is taken, and livestock expansion continues, the country's poultry sector could easily become the source of the next pandemic.

Food sector potential

According to a recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Inter-American Development Bank, a shift to a plant-based food system would alone create 19 million new jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2030.

This means that while 4.3 million jobs in traditional livestock production will be eliminated, a net 15 million jobs will be created through the transformation.

Overall, jobs in plant-based food production will become safer, more equitable, support gender parity, and strengthen rural economies when coupled with increased public services.

As 40% of farming households in Thailand earn an annual income below the poverty line of 32,000 baht, a shift towards small-scale plant-based production should help farmers alleviate poverty by guaranteeing fairer incomes and creating new opportunities.

In addition, public investments in alternative proteins could help support significant climate mitigation and generate thousands of new jobs.

Although the plant-based food market in Thailand is expected to grow to $1.5 billion (50.7 billion baht) in 2024, few measures have been taken by the government under the BCG economic model to maximise this opportunity.

Meanwhile, Thailand's neighbour, Singapore, has established its position as an international hub for alternative protein innovation, supporting the launch of over a dozen plant-based start-ups in the last few years.

To shift its food system, the Singaporean government has put in place a pro-business regulatory ecosystem that supports food innovation.

It has also invested heavily in infrastructure and the development of local talent through university and career transition programmes.

The Workforce Singapore, under Singapore's Ministry of Manpower, offers a career trial programme to subsidise the salaries of employees wishing to enter the alternative protein start-up space.

The success of Singapore involves multiple government agency collaborations to support start-ups and enterprises to provide them access to capital.

The Thai government has already taken steps to promote alternative protein innovation under the BCG economic model. For instance, the government has introduced tax incentives for manufacturers of alternative protein and created "SPACE-F" in 2019 to support start-ups through mentoring.

It has also given start-ups access to capital, which has benefited four start-ups to date. However, the government still has a long way to go in utilising its existing resources for better and safer food production.

Shifting away from industrialised livestock and feed production by repurposing existing subsidies to incentivise farmers to increase plant-based food production can increase sustainable agricultural potential.

In addition, farmers who wish to change from livestock production to plant-based agriculture should receive guidance on how to remain financially viable while identifying new market opportunities for plant-based operations.

Farmers, growers and processors can be convinced of this transition by being shown how this new way of life will benefit the economy, create jobs, and improve their own livelihoods.

Furthermore, the increasing level of education among young Thai farmers is providing an enabling environment to promote entrepreneurship among rural communities to transition out of livestock and monocrop production towards a more just, humane and sustainable plant-based food system in Thailand, where no one is left behind.

The challenges of facilitating a just transition in agriculture are real, but the costs of inaction are much larger in scope and severity.

While a just transition towards a more humane and sustainable protein production will require a major shift, its benefits can far surpass the losses.

An increase in the plant-based sector when coupled with a decrease in intensive livestock production can become a game-changer improving climate, environment and bringing huge socio-economic benefits. And in a world where food production is hampered by increasing climate change-induced erratic weather patterns, building resilience is essential.

The question is, will the government recognise the long-term benefits of shifting away from livestock towards plant-based protein production before that ship has sailed?

Roatchana Sungthong is the Thailand Country Director for World Animal Protection, an animal welfare organisation. Lasse Bruun is an advocacy expert in climate, sustainable agriculture & food systems who serves as the CEO of 50by40, a food systems organisation with 70+ partners.

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