SANPATONG, THAILAND —
Thailand has long been recognized as a leading exporter of rice and other agricultural produce. But tests for pesticide residues are raising concerns about whether the food is safe.
Here, in the hills of Northern Thailand, farm workers like Inson face the constant pressure of producing optimum harvests for overseas clients.
Many farms rely on imported chemical pesticides and fertilizers to help meet demand. But, although the chemicals are readily available, many workers are not sure how to safely use them.
“The pesticide products come from abroad, so we just use them without knowing any information. They're too easy for us to buy. I don’t know if the product has any negative side effects," said Thai farmer Inson Meung-Kaew.
Thailand's quest to boost its harvests has led to a voracious appetite for agro-chemicals, tripling their use in the last decade. Their use now rivals neighboring countries like China and India, where the misuse of pesticides has been well documented.
Now, even inside Thailand there are worries about whether the chemicals are affecting food safety.
Repeated warnings from the European Union, threatening to ban some Thai produce, resulted in a self-imposed halt of exports last year, with promises by the government to clean up the industry.
Many local watchdog groups are unconvinced that the consumer's best interests - both locally and abroad - are being addressed.
Tests conducted in recent months showed alarming levels of toxic residue on market produce, including several cancer-causing chemicals that are banned in some countries. Gae Supab is the head of Bio Thai, which studies farming practices in Thailand.
“At the origin of this commodity we don't have proper control to limit the use right at the very beginning. And then, when it comes to utilization we don't have a proper system to dealing with it, to train and educate people, to limit use in every appropriate way," he said.
Meanwhile, Thailand's health department conducts blood tests in farming communities, to monitor the levels of organophosphates, an active ingredient commonly found in many pesticides.
The results leave many wondering about future health problems they might face, says Doctor Au Chamlong.
“Right now many farmers and consumers are at risk to get pesticides in their bodies. Most of the farmers are using pesticides to spray on their crops. The consumers will ingest pesticides from eating vegetables and fruits from those farms," he said.
As the government promotes Thailand as the 'kitchen of the world', critics say that a serious overhaul of regulations and restrictions needs to be enforced so that the reforms will be taken seriously - protecting both consumers and farm workers from the chemicals.