Agriculture experts make strong case for lifting ban on some chemicals
The Chemical Industries Club of the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI), academics, and farmers have urged the government to lift the ban on some chemical herbicides and pesticides to meet commercial demand and enable Thailand to achieve its objective of becoming the “kitchen of the world”.
Petcharat Eksangkul, member of the Chemical Industry Committee and vice president of the FTI, said that rather than focusing only on organic agriculture, it is time for the country to also focus on chemical agriculture which involves good practices at every step in the production of agriculture products, or GAP (Good Agricultural Practice).
Petcharat was speaking on the topic of "Organic Chemicals: Thailand's Opportunities Under the Global Food Crisis” during the third seminar on "Chemical: Hero or Villain?”.
These GAP methods help solve shortfalls in productivity due to plant diseases, pests and inclement weather.
"We need to accept that chemicals do cause both harm and benefits depending on the way we use them. Knowing how to use chemicals responsibly, along with proper management and scientific proof, will be the key to driving the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides for the benefit of the country," said Petcharat.
The president of the Weed Science Society of Thailand, Chanya Maneechote, said most Thai people are told that chemicals are toxic. Hence anything involving chemicals is viewed as dangerous. Using chemical herbicides and pesticides is resisted as a result.
"These kinds of chemicals are only harmful if you directly consume them. However, if you strictly follow instructions with proper protection kits, there is no danger. Herbicides like paraquat are banned in Thailand, but widely used in America and Japan. If it is dangerous, why do these developed countries allow their farmers to use it?” said Chanya.
She also cited the case study of Sri Lanka, which banned all chemical fertilizers and pesticides at the beginning of 2021 in order to become a 100 per cent organic country. But it was forced to lift the ban in November 2021 as it could not take the burden from decreased productivity of major agricultural products such as rice and tea leaves.
Previously, Sri Lanka had banned the use of glyphosate (a chemical herbicide) in 2015 believing that glyphosate might cause idiopathic chronic kidney disease and possibly carcinogenic. At that time, Sri Lankan scientists and researchers had warned that there was no scientific concrete evidence to issue the ban but the government did not listen. Three years later, many economic crops, especially Sri Lanka's main export crops, were severely damaged by the glyphosate ban and the government finally lifted the ban on glyphosate.
"Thailand must consider all aspects before banning any chemicals used in agriculture. Risk assessment and management of cost and economic worthiness of the use of agrochemicals are required in order to be able to make effective policy decisions. Many of the world's leading agricultural countries such as Brazil, Japan, Mexico, China and the United States all provide this kind of assessment," said Chanya.
Though the concept of organic agriculture is idealistic, a farmer and the CEO of Real Farm, Surawut Srinam, said this way of farming and cultivation is not cost-effective for commercial agriculture which needs to produce large quantities while the quality of production could be controlled.
In his opinion rather than only focusing on organic agriculture, the government should pay attention to GAP agriculture, which prioritises food safety. GAP means the use of chemicals and fertilizers in the specified amount and conditions are allowed as long as it comes along with global food safety standards with no residue left.
He added that the country's farming industry is currently facing challenges from climate change, limited land and workforce shortage. If chemical herbicide is not allowed, farmers will have to hire more labourers to eliminate weeds and pests while struggling to find a way to increase their productivity.
Meanwhile using chemicals is convenient and economical for export. There are already some international measures for permissible residue content in fruits and vegetables. Most countries are more worried about pests and plant diseases than residue.
"Even though there is some demand for organic products in the world market, that demand is very niche. Organic agriculture is also difficult in terms of quality control and has a low volume of production. Besides, it can't consistently produce large amounts to serve the needs of the food industry," said Surawut.
He added that many farmers had to give up organic production and turn to GAP agriculture, which has received good feedback from both domestic and international markets, because buyers are interested in competitive prices and the products meet the export and import standards abroad.
The academic secretary of the Thai Fertilizers and Agricultures Supplies Association, Supak Laodee, said chemical fertilizers are not toxic. It is an essential plant nutrient that helps increase productivity for the Thai agricultural sector, especially now that farmers need more productivity to fight the rise in production costs.
"Choosing an efficient chemical or organic fertilizer is, therefore, an important solution. This will not only reduce the cost of production per unit but also add vital organic matter to the soil," said Supak.
This requirement was raised as the Thai government is focusing on transforming into a 100 per cent organic agriculture country. So, many chemicals and pesticides are banned. Some experts and farmers pointed out that organic agriculture could not serve Thailand's objective to become the “kitchen of the world”, therefore, it would be better to promote chemical agriculture in parallel.
A government sector representative, the secretary-general of the Office of Agricultural Economics at the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Rapeepat Chantarasriwong, said the office keeps doing research and development in both organic and chemical agriculture.
"The production factors are intensively controlled, including chemical, organic and bio-fertilizers for farmers to use appropriately and adequately to eliminate pests and weeds as well as increase productivity," said Rapeepat.
He said the government realised the importance of organic and chemical agriculture and was ready to support both groups of farmers. As for chemical usage, it needs more discussion from related sectors.