From eating junk food to hydroponic farming

From eating junk food to hydroponic farming

How my teenage connection to food changed

Students at a Bangkok school are taught to take care of organic vegetables. Hydroponic gardening is part of the school's after-class activities. (Photo: Apiradee Treerutkuarkul)
Students at a Bangkok school are taught to take care of organic vegetables. Hydroponic gardening is part of the school's after-class activities. (Photo: Apiradee Treerutkuarkul)

I am probably like any other teenager when it comes to food. I just want my hamburger to have crisp lettuce and thick-cut fresh tomato slices. I enter one of the thousands of 7-Eleven's in Bangkok and -- like a magnet -- I am drawn to the rows of well-advertised and brightly coloured packages of fat-filled snacks and artery-clogging sweets.

I don't think at all about these ads directed at me, nor about the carbon footprint that comes hand-in-hand with the trucks that transport them. After all, I'm just a teenager.

I am not alone in Thailand. With the increasing availability of fast high-processed food, parents making more fast meals because of their fast schedules, and adolescents spending more of their time with their smartphones instead of sports and an active lifestyle, Thai teenagers are getting bigger and bigger.

According to a summary of research analysed by the WHO, Asean, and Unicef in Thailand, the obesity rates among children here aged 6-14 years doubled from 5.8% in 1995 to 13.9% in 2014, and there is no reason to think that this trend is slowing. The same report states that with no interventions, this prevalence could be 32% by 2030.

I love to cook and even care about the quality of produce in the food I make. But at the end of the day, I'm still a disorderly teenager and -- until recently -- didn't know or care much about where my food was coming from. While I knew that I and other teenagers are the targets of food marketers, I didn't know about the relationship between what we eat and the environment. I glossed over that tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers are being used and that the runoff pollutes drinking water, kills marine life, and endangers the drinking water supply. I didn't realise that as countries like Thailand have moved from low to middle development, their consumption of beef has increased, thus contributing to methane production, a greenhouse gas produced by cows as they graze.

So even though environmental consciousness may be at the forefront of most young people's lives these days, most of us focus on the carbon produced by cars, planes, and shipping vessels and the disastrous effects greenhouse gasses have on our climate, not the impacts of the food we eat and whether it's produced sustainably. Most teens don't realise that one-third of all greenhouse gases are linked to food consumption.

My epiphany came when I interned at a hydroponics start-up company in Singapore last summer and I realised that hydroponic vertical farming is one of the solutions. A hydroponic system uses 90% less water than traditional practices and 70% less land as they grow vertically in stacks; no soil is used at all. Watching and interacting with the complete cycle of their produce was enlightening and invigorating since I was able to see firsthand how humans can take a proactive step in solving the climate issue.

A student is seen with a sugary drink. Diabetes and dental issues are surging among Thai youths as educators grapple with helping kids addicted to sweet stuff. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

To my surprise, there is a growing hydroponics and vertical farming industry in Thailand. Here in Bangkok, you can buy an increasing array of hydroponically produced vegetables and herbs or buy the systems and start growing them yourself. Companies are giving consumers the ability to take charge of their carbon footprint and grow their own vegetables in the comfort of their homes.

Many entrepreneurs and chefs have become increasingly interested in this new approach. Social entrepreneur Tong Horsuwan started over 20 rooftop gardens for hotels and other businesses so that they can offer high-quality and fresh vegetables. The produce they choose to grow, like chillies and basil, has a strong connection with the cuisine in Thailand. But there are also growers catering to Western tastes, choosing to grow rocket and micro-greens.

Globally, the hydroponic market has an estimated worth of US$12.1 billion and is expected to climb to heights of $25.1 billion by 2027, showing we are slowly heading towards a more sustainable and hydroponic-filled future. The Thailand Board of Investment (BOI) agrees with this positive outlook and in 2023 decided to formally support investments in hydroponic or "plant" factories by lowering the tax burden on companies using this technology.

It is imperative for the youth to become more connected to their food and aware of the spider web-like consequences that our decisions have. As we are one of the last generations that may be able to make meaningful change before irreversible damage is done, we must rally together and invest in more sustainable options. Healthier food choices go hand-in-hand with balancing each individual's carbon footprint.

Moving from a highly processed diet to something more local (perhaps even a bug diet?) could be one step in doing your part. Hydroponic farming took me to the next level of concern. What will it take for other youth to move on this topic?

Zachary Quang Mills is a year 13 student at an international school in Bangkok, Thailand.

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