From today’s Bangkok Post:

The government’s promotion of organic farming should be based on His Majesty the King’s self-sufficiency concept of helping farmers escape the cycle of poverty and protect agricultural production against foreign domination, experts said at a seminar on organic farming yesterday. Charoenvit Snaeha, a policy analyst at the Ministry of Agriculture, said economic return should not be the only focus of the plan, because this would inevitably repeat the mistake of relying on transnational chemical and fertiliser companies. Instead, farmers should be encouraged to produce enough to sustain their livelihood with any excess produce sold in the market.

There is a lot of interest in organic farming in Thailand, and throughout the world, even if there is considerable confusion about what it actually is. Working in northern Thailand I have found that many farmers have started experimenting with various aspects of organic agriculture partly motivated by concerns about the environmental impacts of chemical use and partly motivated by growing market expectations. Farmers undertaking contract cultivation for companies hoping to sell in ‘organic’ markets are increasingly facing restrictions on the timing, types and quantities of chemical input.

These are interesting trends. But, at the same time, there is a need for a more realistic appraisal of the logistics of some proposed organic alternatives. I often get the impression that the anti-agrochemical advocates fail to make the fundamental distinction between gardening and farming. There is no doubt that impressively lush demonstration plots of organic vegetables can be established as part of well funded “self sufficiency” projects. And these demonstration plots certainly do provide impressive backdrops for visiting dignitaries to lament the ignorance and short-sightedness of local farmers. But the practicalities of adopting labour-intensive organic methods often pass without comment, as do the differential costs of ‘organic’ versus ‘non-organic’ inputs. Nor is there much concerted consideration of the crucial role agro-chemical inputs have played in enhancing the productivity of marginal farming systems (especially in remote upland areas). For example, it is commonly reported that the chemical fertilisers applied to dry season cash crops have a significant beneficial effect on rice yields in the following wet season. More generally, the argument that “farmers should focus on self sufficiency, not profits” (to quote the headline from today’s article) reflects a fundamental lack of awareness of the economic realities facing people in rural areas. Until these practical issues are more realistically addressed, adoption of organic alternatives will remain sporadic.