With ADB support, organic farming in Thailand is helping revive smallholder farming, providing better returns for family businesses, employment in the countryside, and healthy food to city dwellers, and protecting the environment from the use of pollutants, such as pesticides.
For some, food preparation is their profession, while for others it is their passion. For Khun Mantana Leksomboon and Khun Supatra Chadbunchachai, who live in Thailand's Kalasin and Khon Kaen provinces, the production of organic vegetables started as an interest that soon blossomed into a real passion. A passion for life.
The market for organic vegetables in Asia is large and growing fast. In Thailand alone, consumption of organic foods has increased five-fold in the last six years. Yet, the country remains heavily dependent on overseas imports for about 40% of its supplies.
With such strong demand from consumers increasingly concerned with food safety and quality, the production of organic vegetables is no longer a marginal activity targeting niche markets. It has become an economic opportunity.
From Family Consumption to Community Production
For the past eight years, Khun Mantana's family-owned 60 rai of land remained uncultivated. However, as they became increasingly worried about the quality of vegetables available from the market, they decided to take matters into their hands and grow vegetables for their own consumption.
At that time, Khun Mantana was managing Kalasin Province's Q Shop, an outlet established by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives selling organic vegetables grown locally.
Offering farmers a fair price, Khun Mantana was assured of a steady supply of organic vegetables. Soon, produce from her family's farm also reached the shop's shelves.
"In Kalasin Province, the public is increasingly aware of the importance of food safety. A strong and growing market for organic vegetables has emerged in the area," Khun Mantana said.
Today, assorted vegetables and herbs such as morning glory, Chinese broccoli, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, lemon grass, chamomile leaves, curry, and many more are harvested and delivered to the Q Shop. Meanwhile, a lot of local produce is also travelling further. Thanks to increasing demand from high-end supermarkets in Kalasin Province and in Bangkok, Khun Mantana was able to mobilize the surrounding communities and step up the production and marketing of organic vegetables.
"In Kalasin Province alone, we cannot even meet the local demand," Khun Mantana said. "That is why we had to establish networks with other farmers to obtain a steady supply of produce."
"I am happy to observe that shopping habits of consumers have changed. Consumers are now willing to pay premiums for pesticide-free vegetables."
- Khun Supatra Chadbunchachai, pharmacist and chairperson of the masters degree program on health consumer protection and health management of Khon Kaen University
Such tight networks also encouraged other farmers to grow organic vegetables, as word is relayed from customers and distributors as to what is in demand. Farmers can then plant vegetables they will be able to easily sell to eager customers.
The Kalasin Organic Vegetables Network was recently formed with the help of the Provincial Government as part of a farmers' cooperative program. What started with only 20 hectares cultivated by 20 households has now expanded into 20 subdistricts involving 500 households.
Teaching Beyond the University Gates
As a pharmacist and chairperson of the masters degree program on health consumer protection and health management of Khon Kaen University, Khun Supatra knows all too well that pesticides residues in vegetables are a major food safety issue in Thailand. The public is increasingly aware of the problem, yet solutions at hand are still scarce.
While most academics would limit their work to the classroom or university lab, Khun Supatra's ten-year stint with the Health Promotion Foundation, a Thailand-based non government organization, motivated her to take action.
Working with the Sum Sung District Office in Khon Kaen Province, Khun Supatra helped 30 farmers obtain permission from the local government to allocate public lands to grow organic vegetables in nine pesticides-free areas. The experience was a resounding success. Soon, the farmers organized themselves into a formal association, enabling them to directly negotiate as a group with buyers. Vegetables are now sold under the brand name "Sum Sung" and the district is renowned as one of the biggest producers of chilies in Khon Kaen Province.
There are now 14 hectares in Sum Sung District producing at least 10 kinds of organic vegetables harvesting on the average 27 tons per month. These are sold in local markets in Khon Kaen Province. Supermarkets and hotels in Khon Kaen City have also asked Sum Sung farmers to supply them with organic vegetables.
"I am happy to observe that shopping habits of consumers have changed," Khun Supatra said. "Consumers are now willing to pay premiums for pesticide-free vegetables."
The Sum Sung organic vegetable farms have also become a training center, as farmers from nearby provinces visit the areas to receive training hoping to replicate the success one day.
Strengthening Organic Vegetable Value Chains
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been helping these farmers organize themselves into efficient-size producer groups that can provide appropriate supply levels for countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).
"We are strengthening local chambers of commerce and industry to promote trade and investment along the East-West Economic Corridor of the GMS, linking them with organic vegetable farmers' networks," said Rattanatay Luanglatbandith, Regional Cooperation Specialist of ADB's Thailand Resident Mission.
Rattanatay, who has been providing technical assistance to the project, emphasized that that there is a need for a large-scale production of organic vegetable products. He noted that while global food consumption has averaged 2-4% in the last decade, worldwide organic food consumption had grown at a double-digit rate.
By 2015, the global organic foods market is expected to reach $105 billion, up from $60 billion in 2013. This is an opportunity no business-savvy entrepreneur can afford to ignore - and one that contributes to the good health of a nation.