Health or high yields? : Pesticides ban divides farmers in the Northeast

KHON KAEN – Farmers in the Northeast are divided over a proposed ban of two widely used pesticides. Many voice concerns over surging farm input costs and lower yields in face of the new regulation. Others say it will protect farmers’ health and the environment while calling on the government to promote alternative measures for pest control.

In early April, the Ministry of Public Health proposed that the herbicide paraquat and the insecticide chlorpyrifos should be outlawed by December 2019, citing risks to health and the environment. It recommended an import ban on the pesticides to be enforced from December this year. The ministry is also considering whether to limit the use of glyphosate, another controversial herbicide.

Farmers fear rising costs

Last month, a public hearing in Khon Kaen City invited farmers, academics, and agribusiness representatives to voice their opinions on the proposed ban. Farmers at the event largely opposed the phase-out of the chemicals while brushing off health risks and raising concerns about a growing financial burden on their farms.

“All my life as a corn farmer, I never had any health problems with paraquat and glyphosate,” says Nae Saijantuek, who has been using the pesticides since 1992.

The 49-year-old owns a corn farm of 100 rai (about 39.5 acres) with her husband in Nakhon Ratchasima’s Si Khiu District. Pest control is difficult without spraying pesticides on a farm of this size, Ms. Nae argues.

Clearing five rai of land by manually removing weeds takes the couple one day – a labour-intensive task for two people. “Once I hired 10 workers for a day to clear our fields,” Ms. Nae says. “But it cost us 3,000 baht and they couldn’t finish the job in one day.” Buying pesticides for the entire farm is considerably cheaper, she said.

Other northeastern farmers shared Ms. Nae’s experience. Among them were growers of sugarcane, chillies, onions, fruit, and other crops. Raising their hands at the event, a majority disagreed with the ban.

Pesticides are indispensable and reduce farming labor costs, says Phuchit Unthiau, president of local farmers organisation in Udon Thani Province.

“All chemicals are somewhat dangerous,” Phuchit reasons. “But instead of banning them, people should be educated in [safe] use.”

Chemical impact

But not all farmers in the region oppose the government’s proposal, many of which say exposure to pesticides made them sick. They received support from agriculture experts who welcome the ban as an effective mean to protect farmers’ health and the environment.

In Nong Bua Lamphu Province, where a sugarcane boom has been under way in recent years, public health experts raised concerns about the increasing use of pesticides by farmers.

Last year, blood tests of 473 sugarcane farmers in the province’s Hua Na Subdistrict showed troubling results. Pattanaporn Khonpol, the head of the local Health Promoting Hospital, told The Isaan Record that 20 percent of respondents are facing health risks due to high level of toxic chemicals in their bloodstreams.

Noi Hasuk, a 71-year-old sugarcane farmer from Roi Et Province, agrees with the government ban on two of the most common pesticides.

In the sugarcane growing areas of Roi Et Province, local farmers have reported numbness in hands and feet, and skin irritations — symptoms of paraquat exposure, claims Noi Hasuk, chairman of a sugarcane growers organisation in the province.

“In terms of safety, the pesticide ban is worth it,” Mr. Noi says, adding that he stopped using pesticides on his sugarcane farm in Borabue District after noticing an impact on his health.

His neighbor, Somchai Norat, grows sugarcane on 50 rai of land, and has been spraying paraquat for years. He pays 160 baht for a litre of paraquat and uses about 1-2.5 litre of per rai – a much cheaper investment than paying workers to clear his land, he claims.

But the long-term exposure to the chemicals caused itchiness and red spots on his skin. “In the future, I might stop using [the pesticides] but I am not sure if it’ll be financially viable,” Mr. Somchai says.

The 67-year-old farmer agrees with a ban on pesticides but he wants the government to recommend alternative techniques for pest control that require low investments. Farmers in his community carry large debt burdens and cannot afford to lose any money, he told The Isaan Record.

Both pesticides, paraquat and chlorpyrifos, are banned in several countries worldwide.

Paraquat is linked to Parkinson’s disease, kidney damage, and can cause difficulty breathing. Highly toxic to humans — drinking one sip can be lethal — the weed killer is also a leading agent for suicides in Asia. Chlorpyrifos has been found to potentially harm the mental development of unborn children and can cause autoimmune disorders.

Somchai Norat shows scars that he says were caused by skin irritations linked to pesticide exposure. The 67-year-old sugarcane farmer generally agrees with the ban but worries that there won’t be a financially viable alternative to pesticides for him.

Healthier soils

Sugarcane farmers commonly spray paraquat to control weeds but the pesticide is also advertised as potentially improving yield output and soil structure.

Mr. Noi’s pesticide-free farm produces about 20 tons of sugarcane per rai, a yield comparable to conventional farms. While the soil of the 71-year-old organic farmer remain healthy, his pesticide-spraying neighbors often face soil deterioration, he noted.

Several farmers in Mr. Noi’s village have already turned their backs on pesticides and many are considering whether to switch to chemical-free agriculture. Many joined an initiative of the Agricultural Office in Maha Sarakham Province that promotes natural growing methods.

Since 1995, the Land Development Department under the Ministry of Agriculture trains local farmers to become so-called volunteer soil doctors. They assist other farmers in their areas in managing their lands and improving soil quality.

At the public hearing in Khon Kaen, volunteer soil doctors from several provinces stressed that pesticides not only affect farmers’ health but can also affect soil quality and contaminate organic farms.

Udon Cha-Insuang, a volunteer soil doctor and organic farmer from Kalasin Province, welcomes the fact that farmers in the region have started to turn away from pesticides.

“I’m determined to grow 100 percent organically,” the 57-year-old farmer says. But his fields have repeatedly been polluted by pesticides carried in by rainwater flowing down from his neighbor’s’ fields.

The proposed new regulation would a first step towards protecting organic farmers from chemical contamination by their pesticide-spraying neighbors, he says.

But it is unlikely that a ban of the two most common pesticides would persuade many farmers in the Northeast to switch to organic farming. Without financially viable alternatives for pest control, farmers are hard-pressed to switch to other pesticides that are still legal.

The public hearing in Khon Kaen ended with a representative of US agribusiness Monsanto handing out informational materials citing studies claiming the company’s pesticide glyphosate to be safe to health.

Reporting by Peera Songkünnatham and Danuchat Boon-aran. Danuchat is a participant of The Isaan Journalism Network Project 2017 organized by The Isaan Record.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that a representative from Monsanto distributed informational material about the pesticide paraquat at the event in Khon Kaen. In fact, the material provided information about the pesticide glyphosate. It was also stated that the government has already agreed on banning paraquat and chlorpyrifos. But in fact the ban is still under consideration. We updated the article accordingly and apologize for the mistakes.