Surrounded by rice paddies as far as the eye can see, a man hacks away at a termite mound on a tree. He takes the soccer-ball sized piece of mound and ambles over to a blue bucket next to a pile of rich compost. It will take a month until the liquid inside the bucket turns foamy white and emits a pungent and earthy odor. This is when he knows the fertilizer is done and can be applied to his fields.
Just a few villages over, another farmer picks up a bottle of chemical fertilizer and walks to his cassava field. He puts on his protective mask and begins to spray the fertilizer. Twenty minutes later, he’s done.
Why does Daorueang Phutphon -– the man making his own fertilizer -– feel compelled to spend weeks going through a multistep process when he could easily buy chemical fertilizers from the store?
Guest contribution by Lucy Morrison
Mr. Daorueang is a rice farmer in Yasothon, an agricultural province like many others in Thailand. But in this province almost fifty percent of the farmers grow organically. Nationwide only one percent of the country’s 23 million farmers practice organic agriculture.
He switched to organic farming because he wanted to be self-reliant and in control of where his food comes from.
“We need safe food,” the 54-year-old said. “You need to do it yourself or know where it’s from.”
Independent of chemical farming inputs produced by large agribusinesses, Mr. Daorueang sees organic agriculture as one way towards food sovereignty, a term coined by the organization Via Campesina, an organization representing small-scale farmers around the world. It’s the idea that the producers and consumers determine the food system, instead of corporations.
Mr. Daorueang is part of an organization promoting sustainable agriculture in Isaan called the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN). It seeks to boost food sovereignty for farmers by promoting sustainable agriculture methods, economic sustainability, and “protesting” conventional agriculture encouraged by the government and the market. Mr. Daorueang is the coordinator for the AAN branch in Yasothon province.
In 1966 the “Green Revolution” swept across Thailand soon making chemical agriculture the most common form of farming. During that era, the government handed out chemical fertilizers for free to boost farmers’ yields.
Today, Thailand imports five to six million tons of chemical fertilizer per year. Currently, the country permits the use of 1,148 agrochemicals while the European Union only permits 164.
Though chemicals do help yields increase, “the connection between the production and the farmer is disrupted, and people go into debt because they can’t control what’s going on on their farm,” says Ubon Yoowah, the co-founder of the AAN.
When Mr. Ubon studied at the Faculty of Agriculture at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, he was taught that he needed to put fertilizer in the fields.
“It’s like being controlled,” the 56-year-old Mr. Ubon said. “I had to come back and learn from farmers and get knowledge from farmers.”
He admits that the Green Revolution was not all bad. It increased yield per area and introduced new varieties of plants and animals. For this reason, chemical fertilizers and pesticides became popular among Thai farmers. They can improve yields without a lot of work and make farming a simpler task. Spraying herbicides on a field is much quicker than weeding by hand, and spraying pesticides protects farmers from losing part of their crop to insects.
Corporatization of agriculture
But 50 years later, the Green Revolution has created several problems as “corporations try to control every input,” Mr. Ubon argues: “Seeds, fertilizer, loans, marketing.”
For many farmers in Thailand, especially those growing cash crops, corporations do control every input, even though it may not seem like it.
Industry heavyweight Charoen Pokphand Foods (CP) owns almost every stage of production for pork production, from breeding to animal feed, drugs and vitamins, fattening farms, and finally the market for processed meat.
It is common for farmers to take out loans from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) in order to buy heavy machinery and purchase inputs. In 2000, 88 percent of farm households were involved with the BAAC. In 2016, they gave out over 1.2 trillion baht in loans (about $37.5 million) and had more than 250,000 clients who needed government compensation for loans.
In Yasothon, one farmer spends around 3,000 baht ($94) per rai on chemical fertilizers a year. Many chemical farmers are hundreds of thousands of baht in debt.
“I am one million baht in debt,” said one chemical rice farmer who lives in Kham Muang Khai village in Yasothon. “Mostly from the BAAC.”
When their crop is ready to be sold, it goes through a middleman, who determines the price, and often undercuts farmers.
“I don’t think it’s fair, but we still have to sell it and accept it,” said Uraipon Poongsi, who grows rice and cassava with chemicals in Yasothon.
Monoculture crops such as cassava and sugar also bring the small lives of farmers into the global market system. Thai-based Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation is the largest sugar producer in Asia, and one of Coca Cola’s top suppliers. An Isaan sugar farmer’s salary is tied to the global price of sugar and often they cannot cope with the ups and downs of the sugar market, Mr. Ubon explained.
Alexandra Heis, a research fellow at the University of Vienna who has done research regarding the AAN and food sovereignty, writes that organic farmers like those in the AAN “maintain independence through a set of specific local strategies of resistance” such as evading corporations and the dependence that so often follows.
The strategies employed by the AAN for food sovereignty may “have mainly local effects, they are, however, also globally embedded,” Heis writes.
Organic farmers have more independence when it comes to growing and selling their products. The AAN owns an organic rice mill that members can use, and there is a committee of farmers that determine the price of rice for the entire group. Therefore, organic rice farmers can process their rice independently and are not bound to the same market swings as conventional farmers.
Most farmers don’t go into organic farming for food sovereignty directly, but for health reasons.
When Wan Thongnoi, 56, another member of the AAN in Yasothon, began spraying chemicals, he noticed that his hair started to fall out. His father-in-law also fell sick and developed blood pressure issues.
It wasn’t until the next year when Mr. Wan used chemical fertilizer on his rice seedlings and they all turned yellow and died that he understood the risks of conventional farming. He decided to transition to organic farming immediately.
In one study that tracked farmers after spraying commonly used chemicals, farmers reported symptoms relating to neuromuscular (53 percent), respiratory (34 percent), and digestive (10 percent). One year after spraying, 68 percent of farmers reported experiencing these and additional symptoms.
The transitioning process is difficult. Farmers often must go through four or five years of lower farm outputs before their yields match those of chemically treated plants. This can be a financial barrier, even though the cost of farm inputs decreases.
Ultimately, most farmers who have transitioned to organic agriculture would not return to chemicals. In addition to better health, their farms are more diverse and provide a broader range of food.
“There are frogs, fish, and local vegetables that we can pick anything we want,” Somporn Thongnoi, Mr. Wan’s wife, says. “Half the weeds in the paddy fields are actually local vegetables.”
Chemical farmers are often aware of the negative health effects of chemicals. In Yasothon, many chemical farmers ask their organic neighbors if they can have their vegetables because they do not eat their own.
Food sovereignty goes beyond the producers of food. It is something that consumers can active pursue as well.
Chemical residue can be dangerous, and a study revealed that three common vegetables (pakchoi, morning glory, and Chinese kale) exceeded the maximum residue limit at a rate of 35 – 71 percent, depending on where it was bought. Pesticide residue has been linked to reduced sperm counts in males and an increase in ADHD prevalence, among other potential health effects. However, many people are unaware of these issues.
Mr. Ubon believes that if more consumers can connect themselves to justice by knowing about the issues in the food system and choosing food that aligns with their values, it can lead to a fair trade system. “We want consumers who can connect their own consumption to their safety, the safety of their families, and the environment.” Consumers can play an important role in changing the food system to give more power back to the people.
As more people move to the city to work, they are becoming less aware about where their food comes from. Urban populations no longer depend on their land to feed them, so it is easy to become detached from where their food originates.
For many, food choices are based on price and a desire to eat in that moment, much of which is determined by corporations such as CP.
“We are being managed by the marketing system.,” Mr. Ubon argues. “We are not much better off than chickens. We can be trained, we don’t question anymore, or have a consciousness of Mother Earth.”
Green markets are helping consumers to better connect to their food by facilitating a direct producer-consumer interaction. Yasothon was an early adopter of the green market, especially with such a large population of organic farmers, and other cities in provinces across Isaan and Thailand are following.
Food sovereignty in a global world
Many corporations stress that with our growing population, countries will have to rely on chemical agriculture to produce enough food.
But Mr. Ubon disagrees. “Humans have been feeding each other forever,” he says, adding that food insecurity in the world is not due to a lack of food, but a lack of resources, especially land and water. Food security is also tied to income and equal access.
“We have to change the paradigm and beliefs of farmers,” Mr. Ubon explains, to get them to trust organic farming and go against big corporations.
Mr. Daorueang is convinced that once the government begins to really believe in non-chemical agriculture, significant change can happen.
Although the number of organic farmers in Thailand is low, government initiatives increasingly promote organic agriculture. While the state continues to support chemical agriculture, this growing trend gives hope to the members of the AAN. There are government programs to support growers financially in their transition to organic farming, and the Ministry of Agriculture has a goal to reach five million rai of organically cultivated land, said Angkana Boonsam, who works for the Yasothon Office of Agriculture.
Food sovereignty is a complex balance of producers, consumers, corporations, and governments, and it impacts everyone. The work organic farmers in Yasothon province are doing is bringing their communities closer to this goal.
Growing organic leads to food security, and food security leads to food sovereignty, Mr. Ubon argues. “Organic farming isn’t just about stopping chemical use, but to start being free in making your livelihood.”
Lucy Morrison is an environmental biology student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She has been studying about development and globalization issues in Isaan for the last four months.