Green network paving the way for an organic Asia

Agricultural produce is one of Thailand's top five exports, making up about 12.37% of GDP. At the same time, Thailand is one of the world's heaviest farm chemical users, with imports of such chemicals more than doubling in less than a decade.

A member of the community supported agriculture system harvests vegetables on her farm in Suphan Buri for her customers in the city. DANAYA CHULPHUTHIPHONG

In 2011, Thailand imported 160,000 tonnes of farming chemicals, a dramatic increase from about 78,000 tonnes in 2005. This alarming rise in chemical farming has raised fears over adverse health effects in both farmers and consumers, as well as damage to the ecology.

As an alternative to chemical farming, a group of environmentalists started to introduce organic methods in the 1980s. They launched the community supported agriculture method, which involves a network of consumers who pledge support and promise to buy produce from one or more organic farms.

This approach has proven very successful. It started with a small community garden and has grown into an international network of green initiatives that hold forums and green fairs to promote public awareness of he benefits of organic food.

The numbers show consumers are listening, as the market for organic foods grows exponentially.

The Thai Trade Centre said the organic farming market in Thailand was worth US$23 million in 2005 (676 million baht), an increase of 145% from 2002, when it was worth $9.4 million.

But more needs to be done.

Hans van Willenswaard of Towards Organic Asia, a green initiative that holds an annual agroecology forum for green professionals, said organic goods still make up only 1% of Thailand's farm produce, with the remainder coming from conventional methods.

Towards Organic Asia is working to expand the market from a small number of individual buyers to contracts for health and education institutes to buy green goods.

Currently, Kasemrad Hospital, Thammasat University Hospital, Pathum Thani Hospital, Panyotai School and Torsri School buy fresh produce from the weekly green market.

The majority of organic produce still comes from family farms and projects, but the private sector is starting to take notice of the growing demand for organic goods.

This year, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods Plc made plans to expand organic agribusiness operations in Laos and export to Thailand's growing consumer base.

Suan Nguen Mee Ma, a social enterprise, held its 6th Green Fair earlier this month to educate the public about the green movement.

With support from Thai Health Promotion Foundation, the event was held at Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre and hosted 110 booths that sold items such as organic rice, fruits, vegetables, soaps, clothing and cosmetics.

The fair was the final event of the week-long international green forum organised by Towards Organic Asia to strengthen the organic network in Asia and to promote understanding and cooperation in agroecology and social well-being.

Headquartered at the School for Well Being at Chulalongkorn University, the Towards Organic Asia partnership network includes organisations from China, Japan, India, Indonesia and more.

Organic foods are usually viewed as expensive products affordable only to the wealthy.

Wallapa van Willenswaard of the Thai Green Market Network said the green farming network is working to change that misconception.

Apart from raising public awareness, the network is also campaigning to persuade schools and hospitals to support green food produced within their communities.

Though some farmers have been educated about the health and longevity benefits of organic farming, the larger short-term profit is too alluring for them to ignore.

Green community networks found that early on in the organic growing process, some farmers switched to chemical fertilisers to boost production.

In order to curb this behaviour, the networks implemented the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), in which farmers and consumers build close-knit relationships between each other, establishing mutual trust in revenues and the integrity of the food.

Though larger distributors still require state accreditation, PGS helps educate consumers about the food chain.

Urban farming is a new, trendy frontier of organic growing that Ms Wallapa hopes will distribute organic foods to all socioeconomic levels.

After all, the spirit of the movement, Ms Wallapa said, is to bring "health for all, education for all, organic food for all".

About the author

Writer: Jennifer Katanyoutanant