By Pratch Rujivanarom
ENVIRONMENTAL experts are calling on the food industry to shift from monoculture maize farming both within and outside Thailand in order to sustainably solve the problem of air pollution from the burning of fields. They have also called on policymakers to come up with policies that help farmers opt for more ecologically friendly farming methods.
With provinces in the North again this year choking in dense smog from wildfires and outdoor burning, BioThai Foundation director Withoon Lienchamroon said the major cause of the chronic pollution problem is the widespread monoculture farming in the region and areas across the border.
Laying the blame on large transnational firms and the authorities, Withoon said farmers are being allowed to cut down forests to expand their farms and slash and burn their fields every year to grow corn. He said big companies sign contracts with farmers, providing them with seeds and buying their crops, while the authorities also encourage farmers to grow more monoculture cash crops such as maize and sugarcane.
“Even though some large food companies have promised not to buy maize from farms that are encroaching on forests and other inappropriate areas, many are still purchasing maize from neighbouring countries,” Withoon said.
He said monoculture maize farming in neighbouring countries was also contributing to severe haze in Thailand, because smog from burning fields and forests drifts across the border.
Hence, he said, the only way of sustainably solving this chronic problem will be for the authorities and the business sector to be strongly committed to encouraging farmers to shift from monoculture to an integrated farming system. He said just banning farmers from burning their fields will not solve the problem.
Independent researcher Olarn Ongla further noted that the biggest problem with the smog is structural, as the authorities fail to see the true reason why farmers are opting for monoculture farming and burning their fields to prepare the land every year.
“Many farmers go for monoculture farming due to financial reasons. Without the right polices and support from the authorities, they have no choice when it comes to sustainable farming,” Olarn said.
“They [the authorities] also don’t have an action plan to stop the expansion of contract monoculture farming in Thailand and neighbouring countries, which chains farmers to the cycle of slash-and-burn every year without improving their livelihoods.”
Hence, he said, instead of seeing poor farmers as the villains, the authorities should find the real reasons why farmers still rely on monoculture farming.
He also said that the smog in big cities like Chiang Mai cannot be solely blamed on forest fires and outdoor burning, as there are several other sources that contribute to the pollution. So, he said, the authorities should also find a way to control the emission of polluting substances from each source.
Foundation for Agricultural and Environ-mental Conser-vation noted that maize is one of the key cash crops in Thailand and that demand for it is rising every year.
Up to 95 per cent of corn grown in Thailand is used for animal feed in the husbandry industry.
Also, the foundation said, as of 2017-2018 data, up to 52 per cent or 3.67 million rai (587,000 hectares) of the country’s overall maize plantation area was inside protected forested area.
According to 2017-2018 statistics released by the Office of Agricultural Economics, 64.16 per cent of the country’s total plantation area is devoted to this crop in the North.
The northern provinces of Nan, Tak and Chiang Rai have 732,914 rai, 527,859 rai and 405,848 rai respectively devoted to this crop, the highest in the country.
The office also found that the overall area growing maize in the country has been continuously rising, with statistics showing that area devoted to maize plantations in the 2017-2018 farming year had expanded by 16,454 rai or around 0.26 per cent.