06 November 2012

Transitioning from Chemical to Organic Farming

Originally, when studying chemical versus organic farming methods, it all seemed so clear; organic was the obvious choice and all chemical farmers should switch over. It seemed that farmers were scared to do so because it meant more labor and possible lower yields for the first few years. But why didn’t chemical farmers see that after the first few years it gets easier and the yield and quality improve? Why did they continue to choose chemicals over organic?

After going to a village where 100% of the farmers used chemicals, I got a new perspective. Most farmers in Ban Na Samai switched to use chemicals about 7 years ago. The whole village made the transition at the same time. Some farmers like Songsri and Chalong Sailabad explained that they made the switch because of weeds. Over the years, the region has gotten drier with less and less rain each year. Without the rain, weeds started to take over more of the rice paddies which meant much more physical labor for farmers in order to remove the weeds. Most farmers were not willing to put in more physical labor, as farming already demands so much. With chemicals they no longer have to weed.
On top of that, when farmers use chemicals, they still have a chance of harvesting rice even if there was not enough rain for the year. This food security issue is what almost every farming family we spoke to brought up. Their reasons for using chemicals are legitimate. The constant comment throughout our stay in the village was, “without chemicals we will not eat.” These farmers are using chemicals because they are afraid that if they don’t, their food will not grow. Chemicals almost guarantees them a harvest for the year.

The villagers have also not experienced the negative effects of chemical use than can occur. One family boasted that their soil was the best it’s ever been. They could tell by our faces that we did not believe them so they said it over and over again. Most families had not experienced any health problems relating to chemicals either. There was one woman, Sric Veruwanarak, who was widowed because her husband had died from walking in a newly sprayed field when he had an open wound on his leg. The wound became infected and spread to both his feet and hands and two weeks later he died. Although people know about the negative effects of chemicals on health, many feel they are safe as they have not experienced any problems yet.

Even Sric Veruwanarak continues to use chemicals because she too is afraid she won’t have food on the table if she doesn’t.

The head of the health clinic, Vira Seangchat in the area also uses chemicals on his farm, although he has reduced his use and has plans to dig a well next year. The well would provide his land with the water it is starved for. He is sure that once he has that water, there will no longer be a need for chemicals.

Could irrigation systems like this work for other families as well? These farmers are not bad people for using chemicals. Their concerns for switching are legitimate, as food means life. They know and understand the benefits of going organic and it is something they all want to do. Although they want to transition, they don’t see it as a possibility until they have more water. More water would mean less weeds and higher yields making it possible for farmers to make the switch.

Anya Chang-DePuy
University of Massachusettes


Alex said...

It is so interesting to see this issue from another perspective. My understanding of the organic vs. chemical issue changed drastically when I was able to hear firsthand accounts from people choosing chemical methods. At first I thought it was a very black and white issue, one side being very bad and the other very good. Not that the science and risks associated with chemical farming are irrelevant, but I have a much deeper understanding of why people choose chemical farming over organic farming now. It’s not a simple issue of people being too lazy to do the work by hand or completely ignorant of the effects of chemical use. It’s a much bigger issue of a basic lack of a key resource—water. I feel like the chemical farming issue in Ban Na Samai is indicative of the wider water issue that has surfaced across the globe. I’d never seen this firsthand but it’s interesting to see specific examples of how climate change is affecting real people around the world.

Erin said...

It is really interesting to see the way that the different problems we study in class interact with each other. The solution to one village's problems seem to be the source of another's. Providing irrigated water to places like Ban Na Samai via large scale projects flood places like Rasi Salai and Hua Na. Meanwhile, the other solution to agricultural problems in Ban Na Samai-- chemical agriculture-- puts the farmers, their families, and their consumers at a long term risk for health problems, not to mention the effects on the soil. It seems as though any solution will have both benefits and more negative consequences, winners and losers. In this case, is it moral to find the solution that benefits the most people at the least possible cost, even if it will negatively impact the lives of some stakeholders? If so, who gets to make that decision? In Thailand, it seems to be the government as well as some major private companies who decide what is best, and they usually decide that chemical farming and mega-projects are the way to go.

April DesCombes said...

I really enjoyed going to this village. While on unit one trip I feel that a majority of the group, including myself, harshly criticized chemical farmers because common sense says that chemicals are harmful. The organic farmers we spoke to praised organic farming and spoke about how much better organic farming made their crops and land. The farmers in Yosothon have one thing that Ban Na Samai does not have: water. So after staying and exchanging with the villagers of Ban Na Samai it is much harder to criticize and think badly of farmers using chemicals because like every farmer said, ‘If we don’t use chemicals we don’t eat.’ This was a reality check I think for many of us. I am happy that the student group was able to hear this village’s story and understand that organic vs. chemical farming is not just black and white but is much more complicated than that.

Ryan said...

After hearing about this community from my fellow students that visited this village for their CCC, it was really striking to hear the story about this community and their satisfaction with chemicals. It was quite surprising after our previous unit, which opened my eyes to the dangers and cost of chemical farming. It is very interesting to hear the perspective of this village. Before hearing about this community I thought that there is nothing that great that comes from using chemicals, especially after exchanging with villagers who previously used chemicals and switched over to organic. Despite what I have been told previously, I do have empathy for this the people of Ban Na Sama. It really changes things when they are desperate for growth and depend on all the yields they can get. I am still hesitant to fully support using chemicals but in the case of this people it is something that affects their livelihood and survival.

Mekala Pavlin said...

While reading this CCC report it was interesting to read about this different perspective. We all like to think that if we were farmers we wouldn't use chemicals in order to protect our environment and ourselves. But if the only way to get food and provide a steady income was to use chemicals, what would you do? Most people would resort to using chemicals if it was the only way to survive. What is interesting about this village is that they don't seem to be thinking about the long terms effects of chemical use. Although they don't feel any health problems now, what about the future? And what about the future of there children? The farmers in Thailand today are struggling to mind a balance in providing for themselves today and protecting there families in the future.

Marissa Lowe said...

I don’t fault the people of Ban Na Sama for choosing to use chemical agriculture; they are their fields after all and it’s their decision to make. However, I can’t help but worry for consumers who can only afford to buy products that were grown with heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. It is not just the farmers and the chemical sprayers that are exposed to the health risks; it is consumers as well. I also wonder if the villagers are aware of what is happening to their soil. Short-term use of chemicals helps them to grow crops with limited water, but these chemicals are slowly leeching water and nutrients out of their soil, making it drier with each use. As the years go on, the villagers will have to use even more chemicals and probably stronger ones to force crops out of the unsuitable land, which will place them in a much worse situation then they are in now.

Kierstin Wall said...

This was the first legitimate pro-chemical agriculture perspective I have been introduced to. And you're right Anya, they are not bad people, they have not been swindled by the government or incentives, they are not simply trying to make higher yields, they are simply trying to eat. The whole problem is the lack of water. There are many sustainable irrigation systems that could be introduced to a community with this problem. I believe that many in the community are willing to make the switch to organic as long as there was a sufficient water supply. Just like the head of the health office who wants to build a well, and those who have seen the health affects first hand as well. I can't imagine needing to use chemicals in order to survive. But the great thing is is that we now know this and the NGO's we work with can start to help the community reach the resources they need in order to plan for sustainable irrigation systems, some maybe including digging wells. I think that this is a well-educated community simply trying to eat and make a small living, I also think they have enough courage to make the switch, they may just need one farmer in the community to start the trend.

Anonymous said...

If I were in their situation, I would probably use chemicals if I had any doubts that my crops would fail without them. I think well digging is a great idea. The only problem with well digging in Isaan is the risk of using salty water which would be no good for the crops.

I think that the community needs to be more informed of the short term and long term risks and benefits. That's what it comes down to. Being able to have that insight is what they are lacking it seems. I can't remember if we've done a report for them or not but I think that would be helpful for them if we did that during final projects.

We could also educate them about safety measures that could be taken when dealing with chemicals. Many of them work in sandals and have no protective eye, hands or face gear. That is a huge unnecessary risk. I'm really surprised that the chemical salesmen haven't informed them of this. Oh wait, no I'm not. I've learned that "safety" is just another social construct - invented in the USA!

preeti said...

nice post. vegetables and fruits grown with the help of chemicals are dangerous to health. organic vegetables and fruit good for health. farmers should avoid chemicals.

silver nanoparticles said...

it is need. because of using chemicals the vegetables are become toxic and it is dangerous to our health.