Farmers despair over chemical ban
Govt 'has not offered viable alternatives'
Nakhon Ratchasima province is the country's hub for cassava harvesting as at least 25% of all cassava yields come from this province alone. Many consumers might not be familiar with this root vegetable, but the starchy crop is a crucial raw material for the food industry.
Among the farmers in this province's community of cassava growers is Pamorn Sriprasert, who has been growing the vegetable on his 300-rai plot in Nong Bunnak district for over 25 years.
Despite the unpredictable market prices of the plant, Mr Pamorn said he was happy with his business until the 26-member National Hazardous Substances Committee (NHSC) voted on Oct 22 to ban three hazardous chemicals: paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos.
The committee upgraded the three farm chemicals from Type 3 toxic substances to Type 4, effectively prohibiting their production, import, export or possession.
Mr Pamorn told the Bangkok Post that he sprays paraquat and glyphosate on his land to kill weeds. When the ban takes effect, Mr Pamorn and thousands of other cassava growers will be forced to stop using these chemicals, and will send them to authorities for proper disposal.
He said the ban, which is set to take effect on Dec 1, will severely affect cassava growers in the country, most of whom use the chemicals in their day-to-day farming.
"I have seen the proposed solution. Nothing is better than the banned chemicals in terms of efficiency and cost. I have not seen any machines that will be able to help us deal with the weeds," he said, adding farmers are losing trust in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
"We are not sure whether the ministry can help cushion the negative impacts on farmers, or find practical alternatives," he said.
He said farmers in the province felt "betrayed" by politicians from the Bhumjaithai Party. Mananya Thaises -- deputy minister to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives -- is a major force behind the ban while the party's leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, who is deputy prime minister and public health minister, has also supported the ban.
"The Bhumjaithai Party has promised to increase the price of the crop but the ban has increased harvesting costs and made farm products less competitive," he lamented.
Earlier, the Department of Agriculture, a state agency under the ministry which fiercely opposed the ban, claimed harvesting costs will increase by ten-fold.
According to the study, the cost of cassava harvesting could rise from roughly 150 baht per rai to 1,200 baht if farmers hire workers to manually remove weeds, or 550 baht per rai if machines are used to eradicate the weeds.
The idea to ban the three chemicals was floated over two years ago. For over a year, the Agriculture Ministry has been urged to study alternatives and prepare farmers to make the transition into harvesting chemical-free products.
"Yet the ministry has been frustratingly idle," said Witoon Lianchamroon, the director of BioThai, and advocacy group that campaigned for the ban.
The ministry was expected to announce measures to limit the impacts on farmers of economic plants, including palm, sugar cane, rice and cassava. However, they did not take action.
"I don't know whether this is a result of political games or not, but the ministry should not remain silent on the issue. Local farmers should know how the ministry is going to help them," he said.
On Nov 6, the Agriculture Ministry formed a committee to monitor and reduce the impacts of the ban, comprised of 17 representatives from various departments.
Wisit Srisuwan, the deputy chief the Cooperative Promotion Department, said the department had supplied weed-removal machines to 71 farming cooperatives and expects to expand the supply soon.
FOOD INDUSTRY'S SIDE EFFECTS
The impending ban has created an unexpected ripple effect. According to the Thai Agricultural Innovation Trade Association (Taita), which supports the use of the chemicals, Thailand will have problems with countries such as the United States, which exports crops sprayed with these chemicals to Thailand.
Once the ban is implemented, Thailand will not allow imports of products contaminated with those chemicals, a change which the US might regard as a non-tariff barrier. Voranica Nagavajara Bedinghaus, the executive-director of Taita claimed that Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada and Australia are expected to petition the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to consider the chemical ban as an official "trade barrier".
"The country's food chain is going to collapse as a result of this decision, which has been made without careful consideration of impacts," she said, adding that some companies affected by the order are filing lawsuits against state agencies.
Not all commercial sectors are rejecting the ban. The rice trading sector has welcomed the ban with open arms, and sees it as a policy that will help farmers enter the organic farming industry. Charoen Laothamatas, president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, said the group agrees with the government's decision to ban paraquat, glyphosate and chlorpyrifos, and has asked farmers to adjust by reducing their use of the chemicals.
"Many rice buyers have tightened their measures to protect consumers," Mr Charoen said. "If farmers ignore the ban or do not reduce their chemical use, rice exports will be affected."
He said global rice consumption is shifting towards chemical-free products. Sarawut Rungmekarat, a lecturer at Kasetsart University's Faculty of Agriculture, said farmers need to prepare for a shift toward chemical-free harvesting.
He added that farmers will be required to spend more time eradicating weeds, because the alternatives might not kill weeds as quickly and effectively as the banned chemicals. Failure to properly control weeds, he said, can reduce yields by up to 80%.
He also does not see any government plan to facilitate a smooth transition for the farmers. "As of now, there is no effective replacement to remove weeds. So, the economic impact on farmers will be huge."