Article about Towards Organic Asia Programme and Organic Food For All Project published in Bangkok Post
Written by SARAH HUCAL Published in Bangkok Post Life Section on 8 April 2015
Some determined farmers are turning their backs on chemicals even though their use in Thai agriculture overall remains common
In Bangkok, as in many major cities, "organic" has become something of a buzzword, associated with overpriced greenery available only to those who can afford to indulge in healthy eating trends. Businesses readily co-opt the term and sometimes practice "greenwashing", marketing products as environmentally friendly for the sake of higher prices, while those who pride themselves on eating organic may be unsure if they are actually doing so. Such is the growing maze of food safety certifications and labels.
As organic markets pop up here and there in the capital almost on a weekly basis, for some farmers beyond city limits, a commitment to growing and selling organic produce in its purest form — without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides — isn't part of an expensive fad.
Forty kilometres north of Bangkok in Nonsue, Pathum Thani province, Kesorn Thongchim rows a small wooden boat through a string of canals, an irrigation system she dug with her family on their 25 rai Fung Kajorn farm. Carp eagerly lap up bananas she has tossed in. They help keep the water clean, ensuring a fresh supply to her crops. Her farm produces bananas, guavas, and papaya without the aid of agrochemicals.
"I'm happy living my healthy lifestyle", said Kesorn, her face aglow. "And I'm willing to teach whoever wants to learn."
Kesorn and her family founded a small orange farm on the property nearly 20 years ago. Like most of their neighbours, they used conventional farming methods, employing chemical pesticides and fertilisers to increase their yields. However, eight years ago, her father-in-law was diagnosed with severe skin cancer. The result, she feels, of a lifetime of farming with chemicals.
Colourful organic salad prepared at Fung Kajorn Farm.
After he passed away, everything changed.
"I began to reflect and felt very strongly that I couldn't continue to put my family in danger", said Kesorn. "And if I continue to sell chemically produced products to the people, I know they will suffer."
Numerous studies have suggested agrochemicals have a harmful effect on the health of both farmers and consumers. Last month, Thailand Pesticide Alert Service reported toxic levels of pesticide residues on a random sample of the 10 most popular vegetables in Bangkok.
Samples were taken from popular supermarkets including Big C and Tesco Lotus, and Talaad Thai and Pak Klong Talad markets, among others. On average, basil contained 62.5% residue, followed by kale at 37.5%, far above the legal limit of 25% set by the Food Safety Regulations under the Ministry of Health. Even samples labelled with the Ministry of Agriculture's approved "Thai Quality Product Q" standard, which claims minimal chemical use from planting to harvesting, were found to have pesticide residues above the legal limit.
Thailand more than doubled agricultural chemical imports between 2005 and 2011. Some chemicals, such as carbofuran, methomyl and EPN insecticides, are illegal in the US, UK, Singapore and Malaysia due to potential harmful effects.
When Kesorn's family turned to organic farming, the transition was difficult. The first three years they didn't make a profit. The soil had been badly damaged from years of chemical fertiliser use and needed time to revert to its original state.
That was eight years ago. Today Kesorn is a role model for organic farmers in her community. Fung Kajorn nets 60,000 baht a month before labour costs, a significant sum considering Thailand's minimum wage of 300 baht per day. They also work with a network of 10 neighbouring farms to share knowledge and collectively overcome challenges.
But organic farms like Fung Kajorn are hard to come by. The prospect of forfeiting several harvests when converting to an organic farming process is too great a financial burden for most.
"Most of my neighbours don't think it's important to grow organic", she said. "Even those who understand are worried it will be too difficult to begin."
Organic for All
Currently, organic products account for only 1% of the Thai food market. The lack of farms makes nationwide access to affordable organic food a formidable challenge. Towards Organic Asia (TOA) and the Organic For All project are two initiatives trying to ensure that organic food is available for everyone, not just those with deep pockets.
Kesorn Thongchim of Fung Kajorn Farm holds worms that fertilise soil.
"We want to reach the less-affluent population who want to buy organic but can't afford it", said Siriporn Sriaram, TOA coordinator. "People with high incomes would likely choose high-end products anyway".
Supported by Suan Nguen Mee Ma Social Enterprise, and in the case of TOA, the School for Well-being Studies and Research, the initiatives focus on educating consumers and conventional farmers about why producing and consuming organic is important, and how it can be done.
Currently, the farms in their network sell produce at 10-20% more than conventional produce. The markup accounts for variables such as smaller yields and increased production costs.
To continue to reduce prices, TOA and Organic For All promote the participatory guarantee system (PGS) of certification, a low-cost, locally based quality assurance system that acts as an alternative to third-party organic certifications.
"The costs involved would put most small-scale farms out of business", said Siriporn.
Developed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, PGS relies on a peer-review system based on transparency and on-site visits by those in the network. Consumers are also invited to make farm visits that allow them to learn just where their produce is coming from.
"Our mission is figuring out how to bring the price down with this kind of system so everyone can afford to grow and purchase food without chemicals", she said. Organic For All also has several other initiatives to connect farmers and consumers, including an annual "Mindful Markets" forum, an events-based green market, and a station selling organic food at Thammasat University Hospital and Pathumthani Hospital.
A visit to Clean Farm, located in Saraburi, shows just how challenging the mission of such organisations can be. Founded by Weerasak Warasambat, a former educator, the 50-person operation grows, packages and delivers tomatoes and leafy greens to markets in Bangkok and surrounding provinces.
Clean Farm produce meets Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification standards, including increased monitoring from planting to harvest. However, GAP still allows the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. It also gives farmers like Weerasak a marketable label. Clean Farm prices produce 50% above comparable products on the commercial market.
"Using small a small amount of chemicals is just fine", he said.
Even without an organic certification or ideology, the farm's produce is not meant for the masses.
"Our target group is people in the high income group who are interested in their health," he said. As for the rest of the population, "After I'm retired I will develop a model that people can use in their own gardens".
"Thai people have very little knowledge about their health and what kind of meal they should be eating", he continued. "I think the Ministry of Agriculture also needs to educate them about the meaning of the certifications. If I ask most people what the meaning of GAP is, they will say it's a clothing brand".
"As a consumer, you have to ask yourself where your food is coming from," said TOA's Siriporn, reflecting on myriad challenges faced by her organisation and others. "If we get 1,000 people asking for organic, can we change the system?"