Reforestation seen as only viable smog solution
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Reforestation seen as only viable smog solution

Animal agriculture, not fossil fuels, is becoming the biggest driver of climate change worldwide

The latest episode of the Bangkok Post 'Deeper Dive' vodcast explores a long-term solution to northern Thailand's chronic smog problem.
The latest episode of the Bangkok Post 'Deeper Dive' vodcast explores a long-term solution to northern Thailand's chronic smog problem.

Northern Thailand's chronic smog problem is usually blamed on burning crop waste, villagers burning wooded areas to pick mushrooms and vehicle emissions. The solutions, we are told, involve regulations and enforcement.

But according to an increasing number of scientists and activists, the problem runs deeper and requires a worldwide solution if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe. The real issue? We have turned almost half the world's habitable land into an animal farm.

In northern Thailand -- and in neighbouring areas in Myanmar and Laos -- we have cut down the forests and planted corn fed to chickens and pigs. That's a quadruple whammy for air pollution and climate change: first, we lose the trees and other biomass that absorbed the greenhouse gases. Second, burning down the forest releases tonnes of greenhouse gases. Third, growing corn requires planting and ploughing fields, and making and spreading fertiliser, all activities that burn fossil fuels and emit nitrous oxide and another powerful pollutants. Fourthly, many farmers still burn their crop waste.

Most people seem aware only of the fourth, the burning of crop residues, and that is certainly a major cause. "What is affecting us most is the by-product of agricultural burning," said Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavit of Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Medicine in the documentary SMOKE: A crisis in Northern Thailand. "It doesn't make a difference whether it's forest burning or the burning of crop waste. They create small particulates that are hydrocarbon-based," he explained, referring to PM2.5.

The 'curse of corn'

For environmental activist Michael Shafer, corn is the primary cause of northern Thailand's pollution problem. "The smoke problem in Chiang Mai province results largely from farmers burning their maize waste," he told the Bangkok Post. "Some of the smoke originates in Myanmar, but likely from the fields of Thai companies. Maize, raised for animal feed by huge agricultural products companies, has resulted in the deforestation of large areas and the destruction of habitat, biodiversity and watershed."

"Corn is really the issue here in Thailand. Animals eat corn… And more than half of this corn ends up being grown on what is technically legally protected forest areas."

Burning a cornfield, however, is just the final twist of a greenhouse gas spigot that began with deforestation to plant the corn. "It is important to look at the numbers of the decline of national forest reserves," said anti-deforestation campaigner Bunnaroth Buaklee. "Despite the status as a forest reserve, [in many places] the forest condition has disappeared."

"There has also been severe forest destruction in Laos and Myanmar's Shan State," he added.

"The animal feed business [is behind] the clear decline of forests in the past 10 years, both in Thailand and neighbouring countries."

In fact, the problem is worldwide. The percentage of forests and grasslands cleared for agriculture was 9% in 1700 -- and 46% today. It's mostly for livestock grazing and, like in northern Thailand, growing crops like corn and soy to feed pigs and chickens.

"The United Nations says that more climate change is attributable to the global meat industry than to all of the planes and trains and automobiles and trucks -- all forms of transport combined," Bruce Friedrich, director of the Good Food Institute, said in a TEDx talk.

"Every environmental issues you want to look at, from the smallest and most local to the largest and most global, the inefficiencies of animal agriculture are one of the top causes."

What are those inefficiencies? According to Oxford University-affiliated Our World In Data, 77% of agricultural land is used to feed and graze livestock -- yet it produces only 18% of global calories and 37% of protein. In fact, peer-reviewed academic studies show that it takes at least ten times as much fossil fuel, water and land to produce protein from animals rather than directly from the plants they eat. And because of that gross inefficiency, a full three-quarters of land now used for animal agriculture could be returned to nature if we cut out meat and dairy -- upper Southeast Asia could be reforested, and the smog levels decimated.

Meat alternatives

Nobody is expecting diets to completely change overnight -- especially with a dearth of competitively-priced alternatives. And that's what spurred Chiang Mai-based entrepreneur Smith Taweelerdniti into action.

"I started reading many books," he said in "Thailand's burning issue", the latest episode of the Bangkok Post Deeper Dive vodcast. He found out "a lot of diseases come from eating too many animal products. So I became vegetarian. But it was quite hard".

What Mr Smith found difficult about giving up meat was the lack of alternatives in most shops and restaurants. Since his family firm is a food manufacturer, however, the businessman saw the relative shortage of meat-free options in stores and restaurants as an opportunity to create the brand Let's Plant Meat.

"If I can create this at the right taste and the right pricing," he said, "we're giving options to people in here, Thailand and Asia, to wean away from animal meat".

Mr Smith's brand is far from the only meat alternative now available. CP Foods is blamed by some for the expanding cornfields, but the country's largest corporation has also taken steps to mitigate the problem by launching a brand called Meat Zero. Seafood conglomerate Thai Union has developed a plant-based brand called OMG Meat, and many others are available in supermarkets and some convenience stores.

Mr Smith told the Bangkok Post that although sales of plant-based meat are currently down industry-wide because of the weak economy, sales on Shopee are rising and he is placing more emphasis on new meat-free versions of traditional Thai cuisine such as larb and kaphrao, particularly to Japan, where imports of meat products are restricted.

For Mr Smith and a growing number of experts, the only viable long-term solution is shifting from the land-hogging, polluting inefficiencies of obtaining our nutrients from meat towards a plant-based diet that would allow global reforestation, rewilding and regeneration of the vast tracts of land laid waste by animal agriculture.

"The global warming issue, the sustainability, the deforestation that come through the food that we eat… People say no to Styrofoam, say no to plastic bags," he said. "They don't know that the food they eat can also cause harm to the planet. Our diet can help the world."

  • Watch 'Thailand's Burning Issue', the latest episode of the Bangkok Post vodcast Deeper Dive, below or at Or search for Deeper Dive Thailand wherever you get your podcasts.

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