We have a big, known problem: Corn is a major source of Thailand’s chronic haze crisis. We also have a big, unknown problem: Corn is a link in a multibillion-dollar supply chain that is vital to Thailand and also many of its poorest people. The really big problem, therefore, is not what to do about corn and corn’s contribution to the haze crisis.
The really big problem is how to fix corn without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Warm Heart Foundation believes it has a low-cost and immediately replicable solution. First, though, it would be useful to review the agricultural origins of the haze crisis.
Corn is nasty stuff. The way we cultivate it in Thailand is inexcusable, no question. Corn burning accounts for much of the Northern haze crisis. Just three Northern provinces, Chiang Rai, Nan and Tak, grow 1.67 million rai of corn – 24 per cent of the national total.) The haze kills and sickens tens of thousands; we all pay for their care.
What’s the corn problem?
Scale. Corn has gone from a regular part of the Thai diet to our biggest and fastest growing crop – that we cannot eat. It’s hog corn, 95 per cent of it unfit for human consumption. How did we get here? Demand for meat, milk and ice cream from a fast growing global and Thai middle class. Chickens, pigs and cows transform corn-based feed into drumsticks, steaks and Magnum bars very inefficiently.
The cheapest places to grow – and the farmers most desperate to do it – are in the rural North where steep slopes and bad soil are good for nothing else. Laws protect such lands, but the officials charged with enforcement ignore burning forest for new fields because more is better. (In 2017-18, 3.67 million rai of corn – 52 per cent of Thailand’s total – grew in protected forest.) The government itself, with the Thai Animal Feed Association, encouraged rice farmers to plant corn as a second crop in their paddies, to “conserve water”.
What, then, is the problem?
The overwhelming expansion of corn on fragile soils in protected forests that are among the few remaining areas of biodiversity in Thailand. Monocropped corn generates huge pest pressure and demand for pesticides with lethal consequences. Corn itself is a particularly wasteful crop; only 22.2 per cent is kernel, while 78.2 per cent remains in the field to be cleared somehow before the next planting. (Burning is easiest, but since more than half of fields lie within forests, the forests burn, too.)
How do you “fix” this sick goose?
A recent article in The Nation highlights the work of leading Thai organisations that understand the problem and have wise solutions (“Thai govt urged to help farmers shift practices”, April 8). As BioThai director Withoon Lienchamroon observes, because just a few large companies, encouraged by government policies, are responsible, it ought to be possible to force a sustainable public-private solution to support integrated farming, not monocropping. Researcher Olarn Ongla adds that policy must also address farmers’ poverty, which prevents them from shifting to more sustainable techniques.
Sounds great – but despite the social costs of haze, neither government nor companies have incentives to play. Today, government and companies confront minimum costs and risks. Government has limited forest monitoring and use-enforcement costs or agricultural extension costs at the rural fringe. Elected with a popular majority, it can ignore protests in an opposition area. Doing nothing also avoids the risk of failure, dangerous when legitimacy depends on the ability to deliver quick, tangible successes. Meanwhile the companies face no risk of more costly corn, the largest cost component in animal production, and can use CSR programmes to placate opposition as they transition to foreign production
Killing the goose that lays the gold
What happens if such a scheme is imposed? The companies exit, with terrible consequences for Thailand. Companies produce corn in the Thai North because land and labour are cheap. If remaining in Thailand becomes too costly, they move to Myanmar. The growing conditions are similar, the labour is cheaper and there is no regulation. With the Asean Free Trade Agreement, the cost of importing corn to Thailand is minimal, although transportation is inconvenient. How best to solve that? Move the chickens, hogs and cattle to Myanmar along with the slaughterhouses, etc. The cost is soon paid back by the lower cost of doing business.
As a result, burning in Thailand, forest encroachment and the amount of corn raised decrease. We outsource the problem, but ineffectively. The haze continues from Myanmar, where tens of thousands more people are exposed. Closer to home, tens of thousands of Thais employed in the shipping, care, slaughter and processing of meats and dairy lose their jobs, a fate shared by large numbers of landless farmers. There are no ready replacement crops, sources of demand or funds. Rural communities collapse faster, more uneducated and untrained farmers pour into the cities. Thai imports of chicken, pork and beef spike. The goose is dead without an alternative source of gold ready at hand.
Does the goose have to die?
Warm Heart thinks not. We are small Thai Foundation (CM273) without the international and national funding of big NGOs. We do not make plans for government or for major corporations. We believe that corn is here to stay, essential to the lives of Thailand’s poorest farmers who are forgotten in public discussion. We see a way to resolve the haze crisis through the market and poor farmers’ hunger for better lives: give them incentives and means to profit from not burning their corn waste. Right now.
Warm Heart believes that we, the citizens of the North, can choose between two futures. The next decade can be clouded with haze or small farmers can learn to convert crop waste to biochar and sell it as briquettes or fertiliser.
There is nothing high-tech, high cost, imported or impressive about Warm Heart’s solution. We teache poor farmers to teach other poor farmers to make their own equipment and biochar. An old Thai farmer teaching another farmer to make biochar from crop waste in a small, unkempt field using equipment designed in Thailand and built by the farmer himself is not something that goes on nice websites or merits a write-up in academic journals. But it works. This is not a vague promise. This is not a theoretical possibility. This does not require years of testing. This is known and tested. If tens of thousands of small farmers learned to do this right now, there would be far less haze in the air next year.
Michael Shafer is director of the Warm Heart Foundation in Phrao, Chiang Mai.