Organic products are known to promote safety to human health and the environment. While demands have increased, organic products are still considered non-mainstream, partly because of limited supply and higher retail prices, which are around 20-30% more than farm products harvested using chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
One factor that drives up the cost of organic produce is the process of obtaining a organic certification. It usually costs farmers 10,000 baht upward for a sample to be sent to an international auditor that will officially brand, say, a pack of rice as "organic" (see box). This limits the chance of small-scale, low-cost organic farmers to compete with rich companies. Organic products in Thailand are smaller than 1%.
Thamana Lekprichakul, Program Coordinator of the GMS Agricultural Support Program Phase II under the Asian Development Bank operation, said organic food and farming can be the answer for food security in the future.
"The era of food security in terms of quantity is coming to an end. It is not enough that food is in abundance. It must be safe to eat and the harvesting must do no harm to the environment, nor worsen the impact of global warming," said Thamana.
ADB was once known for funding massive infrastructure projects, and has recently started promoting organic farming as a means to sustainable development and real economic-inclusive growth in the sub-region. ABD is a partner of the Promoting Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) for small-scale organic farming in Thailand, a project which aims to empower organic farmers through peer-review certification. Other partners include the Thailand Organic Agriculture Foundation (TOAF) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
For more than a year, ADB has been funding the project to help farmers obtaining PGS Organic labels by providing US$310,000 (10.99 million baht) to train 456 organic-farming families in Chiang Mai, Lamphang, Phetchabun, Surin and Nakhon Pathom, to conduct a peer-review process to certify organic products.
Organic labels are a good way to boost sales, however the established certificates cost too much for small-scale farmers in remote villages.
"We need to come to terms that organic farming in Thailand and in the region is so small, in terms of both size and output. Most of farmers are small-scale and harvest on their small plots. They're good at handling risks. The real challenge for them is how to achieve market standards," said Kemkang Yutidhamdamrong, deputy director-general of the Land Development Department, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, one of the partners in the campaign.
The PGS Label provides affordable and transparent organic-food certifying. Unlike a commercial system, whereby farmers and companies need to let a commercial third party come to inspect occasionally, PGS organic labelling asks organic farmers, neutral experts and co-operatives to form a network and committee. Organic farmers can help certify the products of other farmers.
To distribute PGS products to consumers, leading organic food retailer Lemon Farm has joined the effort by selling products with the PGS organic label, together with other small organic markets across the country, such as Talat Jing Jai in Chiang Mai province. Tops Supermarket signed an MoU with the project to sell products with the PGS organic label last November.
But the benefit of PGS is more than getting certificates to boost sales of products, according to Suwanna Langnamsank, founder of Lemon Farm. The farm also provides technical assistance to co-operatives of organic farmers across the country to certify organic products.
Organic farmers wishing to acquire the PGS organic label usually work in groups and have to conduct a peer review of other member farms. Neutral committees shared by members and neutral third-party experts are formed to conduct assessments.
Organic farmers who get the PGS organic label must prove they do not use chemical fertilisers and toxic pesticides in their harvesting. They must also be able to prove that their harvesting process is organic and their materials, such as fertilisers, soil or water, are not exposed or contaminated by chemicals, or their farming will not do harm to the environment.
Organic farmers joining the project found PGS more practical for them.
"The best thing about the campaign is that you meet new people who share the same values and passions. These friends will share tips, knowledge and experiences about organic farming. The PGS system is like a campaign that helps us become better organic farmers. You are not just an individual organic farmer who wants to make more money selling healthy products. You are part of community that shares a passion to do something good for society," said Monchai Pintuprabha, a businessman in Chiang Mai who has started selling small organic farm products.
What is PGS
The Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) is a collaborative approach that involves farmers and other stakeholders verifying the authenticity of organic produce.
PGS replaces expensive third-party audits, making organic-farming certification possible for small-scale and marginal farmers. It relies inherently on the trust and transparency of community members to certify each other and is in use all over the world, including in New Zealand, USA and Brazil. Seventy percent of India's agricultural sector is made up of such farmers.
What is organic farming?
Organic farming has become a fashionable trend embraced by urban consumers. However, is chemical-free harvesting enough for organic harvesting? Is it still organic farming if a business is owned by a monopolising farm conglomerate giving so little to farmers?
According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (Ifoam), the leading international organisation that advocates organic farming, it is more about fair trade, ecological conservation and health protection, rather than just stopping the use of chemicals.
"Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved," according to Ifoam.