When Anothai Kongwattana decided to open a healthful vegetarian restaurant in Bangkok she ran into one minor problem; she couldn’t find any organic vegetables on the market.
Her solution was to launch her own organic farm. With the help of her green-thumbed husband, Gaan Ritkhachorn, the couple launched the “Pluk Rak,” or “Grow Love” Farm in Ratchaburi, a two hour drive from Bangkok, in June 1999.
By August 2000, it was supplying truck loads of organically grown vegetables to the Anothai Restaurant on Bangkok’s Rama IX Road, now a well-established eatery among health-conscious gourmands.
“They are one of the lighthouses,” said Burghard Rauschelbach, director of an organic project of the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) in Thailand. “Anothai’s farm is really ahead of everything; they are really working according to organic standards.”
Remarkably, although Thailand ranks as one of world’s leading food exporters and has aspirations to become “the kitchen of the world,” the kingdom ranks 13th in Asia among organic food producers.
With demand for organic foodstuffs in developing countries rising at 25 per cent per year, Thailand has been slow to jump on the organic gravy train, according to GTZ, which has started a programme to facilitate Thai organic exports to Europe.
To date, there are only a handful of Thai companies specializing in organic foodstuffs and even a smaller number in the export market.
Thailand’s largest organic export, rice, under the Green Net and Great Harvest brand names accounts for a good 80 per cent of the land devoted to organic crops domestically.
There is only one sizeable organic shrimp operation, Sureerath Farm in Chanthaburi province, which is now exporting to Germany and other European markets, certified by Naturland.
Swift Company, based in Nakorn Pathom, is the country’s largest exporter of organic fruits and vegetables to Europe, Australia, Japan and other Asian markets.
One of the problems Thailand faces in going organic is its network of small farm holdings that characterizes the countryside.
To meet international organic certification standards, such as those set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), or BCS Oko Garantie of Germany, organic farms need to be at least 20 metres away from conventional farms, a tall order in Thailand’s patchwork of small-holdings.
Swift Company has managed to meet the international standards because it owns huge tracks of land under its direct management, including a 250 hectare farm in Sa Keow Province that is dedicated to growing organic asparagus, much of it shipped to Marks and Spencers in the UK.
Organic crops are considerably more expensive to grow than their conventional cousin which is one reason most farmers shun them.
Although it requires less imported chemicals than conventional farming, organic farming is labour intensive.
“Take weeding, for example,” said Gaan. “If we used chemical sprays it would require just two workers a day but if you weed by hand you need a lot more labour.”
Organic crops also need to be rotated continuously to battle the insect problem.
“Different insects like different vegetables so you need to rotate,” explained Gaan. “Generally speaking insects stay in one area, so if you rotate the crop many will die because you deprive them of their food.”
Organic ingredients are another source of high costs.
“If you run a conventional farm you can buy fertilizer anywhere,” said Anothai. “But for us we have to make our own organic compost, and then we need to store it somewhere, all of which is added cost.”
Thai retailers then add to the organic price tag.
“Bangkok retailers hike the price of organic products up 100 per cent because they know health-conscious customers will pay,” said Paphavee Suthavivat, managing director of Swift Company.
And some of the “organic” products on sale in Bangkok are not really organic. “Some just do conventional farming but put an organic label on their product. That’s cheating,” said Anothai.
While there is an organic certification process in place for exported products, there are not similar certification standard placed on domestically sold organic foods. That is something the government needs to address.
“The point is, if Thailand wants to become the organic food kitchen of the world their government will have to invest in it,” said GTZ’s Rauschelbach.
Germany spent billions of euros on improving its ecological agriculture and now demand outpaces supply.
“Now it works, but a government-sponsored programme was needed because it allowed businessmen to get the economies of scale. Without the programme it never would have happened,” said Rauschelbach, providing Thai authorities with some food for thought.