16 March 2013

The Challenges of Growing Organically

“Every household in this community that grows sugarcane is in debt” the headman of Ban Dong Dip village explained to us. We were sitting in an exchange, or conversation between the villagers and CIEE students, learning about the farming practices of the community. The villagers were in debt because they had contracted to sell sugarcane to a factory, which held them to a certain quota. More often than not they were unable to meet the quota, and this meant that they had to make up for that lose in their next harvest. This almost always required villagers to use more chemicals in their fields as they struggled to produce the extra sugarcane. They know the detriments of the chemicals, but that is not what concerns them the most. What concerns them most is that they must survive, and their livelihoods rest in the success of their sugarcane harvest. Sadly, this is a story common to many agricultural workers in Thailand today.   

I came into this food unit having done a lot of research on food production and being a very strong supporter of organic food growing methods. It seemed pretty obvious, organic food is healthier, better for those who consume it, those who grow it and for the environment in general, so why isn’t everyone just growing food organically?

It didn’t take long for my preconceptions to be squashed by the villagers, the people who were actually growing the food that I could just step into a store or market and purchase. Making a living in agriculture is scary and uncertain, and when you need to guarantee a livelihood for yourself and your family it is much easier to conform to the system than to go against it and risk losing everything.

What I mean by conforming to the system is scarily similar to the dilemma farmers in the United States face. Unsurprisingly, the same movement, the Green Revolution of the 1960s, influenced both Thailand and the U.S. The Green Revolution merged technology with food production; it introduced widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and improved variety of seeds.[1] The government of Thailand suddenly began to exhibit a strong influence over the farming practices used in the country. If farmers wanted access to new improved varieties of seed they would also have to submit to the rice farming practices of the Green Revolution, meaning more fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. In addition to this pressure to conform to government promoted farming methods was the government’s promotion of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which made them incredibly cheap and accessible to farmers1. Yields did increase initially, and many farmers fed into the system, eager for larger yields and increasing incomes.

Our food unit trip took a group of us to Na Samai village, a community that largely practices chemical agriculture. We were able to speak with a woman who farms about 70 rai of land, a huge area. She too uses chemical agriculture, and when we asked her why she explained that everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t she? Interestingly, this woman purchased organic food for her family; they did not eat the rice that she grew chemically. For her, farming was her business, her way to support her family and live a comfortable life. She also explained to us that if she did switch to organic she would need to hire twice as many workers, and that it would still take these additional workers more time to prepare the fields then it now takes for one man to do.

Unfortunately, these are the realities of switching to organics. First, you must go up against a government-supported system and risk having a poor yield. You must spend more time preparing your fields than you would have to with chemicals, that is if you can even obtain organic compost to begin with. For many people, the threat of losing their living is much more powerful than knowing the harmful side effects of the chemicals they use. This unit has truly opened my eyes to the human element of this situation, it is easy for me to do my readings and research and conclude that everyone should grow organic, but in reality it is much much less clear cut than that.

Kayla Murphy
Tulane University

[1] Vitoon Panyakul. “Thai Rice: The Rice of Freedom.” Green Net, May 2003: n. pag. Print

1 comment:

Kalle Davis said...

Kayla, I love how you discuss how your personal encounters and discussions with the people in the community shaped your perspective on organic farming. I have always tried to purchase organically, but it is crazy to think how much more there is to seemingly mundane things. I am currently part of the CIEE service learning program in Santiago, Dominican Republic and we have discussed about what our responsibility as a consumer is. Knowledge is powerful, and encounters are the most powerful way of learning. There is so much more to a product than what meets the eye. There is so much gray area involved in the making of products. One week, we were able to travel to a market on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There we saw an entire drop of donations of TOMS shoes for resale in the market. It appeared as if it never made it to the families who needed the shoes. While the need for shoes in the community is very evident, selling them to make money to feed the families may have taken a priority over the other need. Thank you for your insights and looking deeper into how “good” our good things are!