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How regenerative agriculture helps farmers in Thailand conserve environment & be more self-reliant

Updated: Jul 17

The process of developing and modernizing country results as a huge change in many aspects; culture, politics, economics, environment etc. For positive impacts, we have better transportation, high-tech medical technologies, economic growth etc. However, this changing also has negative impacts too. Thai people are on the rise of losing their culture and tradition because they are influenced by foreign concept, especially western country. We receive lots of great technology, scientific knowledge, and also their notion, which is good. The problem is that we are not realize that we are following them too much. We are forgetting our identity. We are going on the wrong way.

“Nai Nam Mee Pla Nai Na Mee Khao”, an old Thai phrase, means that we have fish in the water and we have rice in the paddy field. Thailand has abundant food sources. Because the weather in Thailand is appropriate for agriculture, we have lots of fruit, vegetables, herbs, etc. Thai’s rice is one of the most delicious rice in the world and we have many foreign people who passionate in Thai fruits. Moreover, Thailand is one of the countries that have highest rate of biological diversity in the world; the area of Thailand is only 0.36% of the world but it has about 2.6-10.1% of vascular plants and vertebrates in the world, and 70% of area in Thailand are forest (Teerakupt 1990). All of these shows how lucky we are. We live in the country that has a lot of resources, especially food, but now we are destroying our treasure.

In the past, people lived with nature in dependence way; they grow many kinds of plants and do farming that is friendly with environment. They used herb from their garden to treat themselves. They lived in the self-reliance way and they have an amiability community and culture of sharing. In that time, growing food was only for one purpose; consuming. If they had surplus goods, they would share or trade with their neighborhood. Nowadays these things are gradually fading away. People changed the way they live; they shift from self-reliance agriculture to industrial agriculture. They neither ponder about the environment nor ponder about the quality and safety of the commodity. They use lots of machines and chemicals in planting, and the purpose of growing food is only for reciprocating market demand and capitalist, mainly aim at the profit. According to Office of Agricultural Economics, in 2011, Thailand imported 164,383,000 kg. of all types of pesticide combined which worth 22,070 million baht, and the rate tends to increase every year (Office of Agricultural Economics 2016).

The effect of using pesticides result as a severe threat on human health. In 1997, 16.35% or 89,926 farmers from 563,353 farmers that had blood test were risked in affected from pesticide, and the rate is continuously increasing (BOED 2007). Srimook (2013) claimed thatreceiving large amount of pesticide can lead to diabetes, paralysis, dementia, dermatitis, and other diseases. An interesting view was expressed that ‘Examining over 4,000 school-aged children in California, the researchers discovered that children exposed to herbicides during their first year of life are four and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma before the age of five; toddlers exposed to insecticides are over two times more likely to get asthma’ (Owens et al. 2010, p. 15).

The result of using pesticide not only affects human, but also environment. Zimmermann (2015) claimed that using pesticide has severe effects on the environment and biodiversity losses. Firbank (as cited in Reuter and Neumeister 2015, p. 41) stated that one of the main causes of reducing species diversity in Great Britain is pesticide. According to Reuter and Neumeister, pesticides also affect the richness of invertebrate species on stream in France and Germany. They analyzed that the species abundance losses up to 42% because of pesticides (Reuter and Neumeister 2015).

Using pesticides and shifting to industrial agriculture, farmers in Thailand are able to grow food faster and able to produce more goods. However, the consequence is a great tragedy. According to Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), number of farmers in Thailand that is in debt has increased over the last 20 years. It is manifest that farmers in Thailand have continuously created more debts; in 2014, the amount of debt in agricultural sector was increased by 11.8% compared to 2004, and the debts of agricultural households that are in the 20% richest group have about 6 times more debts compared to 20% of agricultural households in the poorest group (TDRI 2016).

Moreover, farming by aiming at quantity to reciprocate the market has great impacts on environment. Nowadays many farmers grow only one or two types of economic plant in order to reciprocate the market. This is not only risk them in danger by market price decreasing, but also escalate environment degradation and natural resource depletion. Farmers destroy ecosystem by planting only one or two types of plant; animals and other organisms are lack of habitat, as a result, they gradually disappear. Because farmers break down the ecosystem, they are inevitably forced to use pesticides in growing their plants. This results as a soil degradation and other degradation of natural resources such as deforestation. In 1961, 53.33% of land in Thailand are forest (Seub Nakhasathien Foundation 2016), but, in 2012, the number decreased to 33.40% (LDD 2012). Also, in 2012, Thailand has 46.50% of its land as agriculture area, and 75% of agricultural land has been degraded (LDD 2012).

Meanwhile, more and more people are moving from their homeland in the countryside to the city to find job and opportunity to build up a fortune. NSO (2017) indicated that the main reason of migrating is changing job or finding new job (34.7% of people who migrate). In addition, portion of worker in agricultural sector is rapidly decreasing; the number of workers in agricultural sector shifted from 63.3% to 42.1% since 1987 to 2011 (NSO n.d.). All of these show that people are forgetting their identity; they forget that the abundance of nature and agriculture are the strength of the country.

H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej foresaw the important of agriculture in Thailand as he presented the royal guidance that agriculture is crucial because it is the beginning of human life (Adulyadej 1978). Therefore, H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej proposed the New Theory of Agriculture, an application of philosophy of sufficiency economy, to farmers in Thailand.

The new theory of agriculture is the practical sample of applying sufficiency economy into practice. The main purpose of the new theory of agriculture is to make farmers in Thailand to beable to survive in the today world, together with preserving the environment. The principles of new theory of agriculture based on sufficiency economy, which aim at sustainable agriculture and self-reliance.

For instance, the new theory of agriculture suggested that farmers separate the land into four portions; 30% for growing rice, 30% for water reservoir, 30% for growing vegetable and fruits, and 10% for residential and other uses (Chaipattana Foundtion n.d.). However, this is just a tentative formula. Farmers can adapt this to make it suitable for their area and environment.

Another principle to solve soil degradation problem is growing foods in the organic way. Growing foods in the organic way helps eliminates the use of chemical fertilizer and chemical pesticide. Mongsawad (2010, p.137) stated that ‘Chemical fertilizer is one of the main causes of soil degradation which reduces the productivity of crops. Chemical pesticides not only kill insects but also endanger the environment, which in turn harms people. Instead, the natural materials that can be found locally are used to make organic fertilizer and insecticide’.

These are several principles of the new theory of agriculture. There are lots of principles in the new theory of agriculture, but all of the principles have the same purposes which are managing water and using the land in the most effective way in order to make sustainable agriculture and self-reliance.

By applying the new theory of agriculture, farmers are able to live a happy and sustainable life while they can preserve the environment at the same time. According to UNDP, ‘The New Theory of Agriculture is a kind of sustainable agriculture, as it promotes integrated farming, which consists of rice, big trees, small plants and other medicinal herbs. Big trees help improve soil retention and provide natural fertilizer, while small plants help retain moisture. Also, prolific wind-blown seeds from trees on hilltops help accelerate natural regeneration’ (UNDP 2007, p. 49).

Mongsawad expressed this interesting viewpoint: ‘We can see that the essence of philosophy of sufficiency economy regarding environmental issues is to guide people to live in harmony with nature. By being reasonable and moderate in natural resources utilization (never overexploiting or abusing the environment), and by being self-immune through environmental conservation, people can successfully live in harmony with nature’ (Mongsawad 2010, p. 138).

One of the most important things that H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej emphasized is the way to practice the new theory of agriculture. H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej emphasized that farmers should practice in the poor way, mean that farmers do not have to spend lots of money in doing it, just start with what they have, do not have to strict with treatise, and do it with harmony and mercy (Adulyadej 1991).

However, sufficiency economy was criticized by some scholars. Hewison (2007) stated that sufficiency economy has too broad meaning, and it is an ideology to justify the very inequality. Moreover, he criticized the UNDP’s report about the sufficiency economy that ‘one of the interesting outcomes of marrying the UNDP’s HD data collection with SE is that the data do not match SE assumptions. In fact, the provinces that generally do best on HD indicators are the ones most enmeshed with the world capitalist economy’ (Hewison 2007, p. 4).

It is normal for people who have capitalism perspective to have different point of view on sufficiency economy because its principle is on the opposite side with the capitalism. Sufficiency economy aims at self-reliance, not the profit or money. People do not have to be rich, that is not the purpose of sufficiency economy. There are lots of successful farmers who use sufficiency economy as a philosophy to live their live. They do not have much money, but they have enough food to eat and have enough time to be with their family, they are happy and contented with their life.

Sumroeng, farmer in Surin province, is a good example of people who succeed in employing the new theory of agriculture. She once had a big debt because she and her family grew only rice. Then, she decided to use the new theory of agriculture in farming. At that time, no one in her village agreed with her. People said that she is crazy and this will only increase her debt. However, she did not care about those criticisms. She continued her intention, and now she do not have debt anymore. On the other hand, people have to ask for herbs and vegetables from her because she has many kinds of plant in her plantation. She said that now she is very rich, not in terms of money, but in terms of happiness.

In fact, the new theory of agriculture is not completely a new knowledge. It has been proved that people had been using Kok Nong Na method (the principle about water management of the new theory of agriculture) and other methods such as covering soil for more than 1,300 years (Salyakamthorn 2016). This shows that we already have lots of great agricultural intellects from our ancestors, but they are just blown away by the flow of civilization.

As we can see from H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s speech, which stated that our economy has been depended on agriculture for a long time; the income of the country that we use to nurture our nation is mainly come from agriculture sector, in other word, the prosperity of our country is depended on the prosperity of agriculture, and many kinds of work will be able to accomplished because we have prosperous agriculture (Adulyadej 1964). It can be said that Thailand is an agricultural country, and only the new theory of agriculture can help people create self-reliance and survive through various crisis among the complex world.

We send our kids to study abroad, when they came back, they want our country to be like those country; rich, modern, and luxurious. They think that using compost and buffaloes in cultivation is obsolete, we must use machine and chemical fertilizer in order to have more produces and money. People begin to think that doing agriculture is a waste of time, so they begin to sell their land to the investors and find better jobs.

There is a Thai quote “Ngen Thong Kong Maya, Khao Pla Si Kong Jing” which means that money is deceptive, but fish and rice is real. People may forget that even if we have billion dollars, without food, we cannot survive. People are sitting on a priceless treasure, but it seems like they do not know it. One day, they will look back and realize that, the land and the sky in front of their house are the most precious things they have ever had.


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